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The little known scientist who saved billions but killed millions

The little known scientist who saved billions but killed millions

He saved thousands from starvation but later became identified as a war criminal.

Scientists earn their recognition through efforts to invent, solve, research, and their overall dedication to pushing the boundaries of what we currently know and understand.

Marie Curie, for example, left her mark on the world legacy behind her thanks to her efforts in radioactivity, whilst Albert Einstein is celebrated as one of the most influential scientists of all time.

However, there's a scientist whose legacy is as paradoxical as can be - and you've probably never even heard of him.

Fritz Haber is a German chemist whose work has left a bittersweet taste in the history of science - reflecting its capabilities for both good and evil.

Hulton Deutsch / Contributor / Getty
Hulton Deutsch / Contributor / Getty

After becoming a professor of physical chemistry and electrochemistry, his earliest project involved turning the Earth's gases into fertiliser.

He combined pure nitrogen and hydrogen gas to produce ammonia, a process which became known as the Haber–Bosch process and industrialised by Haber's brother-in-law, Carl Bosch. Ammonia gas could be pumped directly into the soil as a fertiliser, relieving thousands from hunger.

One observer describes it as 'the most important technological invention of the 20th Century.'

Then, his story took a turn.

During the First World War, Haber began experimenting with chlorine gas as part of his efforts to become a patriot to his country.

In 1915, the chemist was on the frontline of the battle. He stored the lethal substance in containers to be placed in battle lines. He calculated that the winds would be strong enough to spread the chlorine over enemy lines.

Chlorine gas first causes a reflex which causes you to hold your breath and can lead to death by asphyxiation.

ullstein bild / Contributor / Getty
ullstein bild / Contributor / Getty

And it did. In April of that year, at the Battle of Ypres, more than 168 tons of chlorine gas was released from 6000 canisters, killing thousands of troops in mere minutes.

Years later, his work was used to create Zyklon A, a pesticide that releases hydrogen cyanide that would later be used during the Holocaust.

Following Germany's defeat, Haber received a Nobel Prize Award, recognised as one of Germany's greatest heroes.

However, this accomplishment wasn't met without controversy.

His role in chemical warfare led many in the scientific community to argue against awarding him science's highest honour - with many boycotting the ceremony in protest.

Featured Image Credit: Hulton Deutsch / Contributor / ullstein bild / Contributor / Getty