Clara Immerwahr: Science’s Tragic and Surprisingly Modern Heroine

A woman is in an unhappy marriage. After much stress and hard work, and a healthy dose of sexism in her lab, she’s also awarded a doctorate in chemistry. After having graduated with Latin honors, the woman’s graduate research is on the solubility of different chemicals, including mercury, copper, and other important metals commonly used throughout industry. However, her brilliant and traditional husband – also a budding scientist in chemistry with an interest in industry – demands that she stay at home once her doctorate is done. Or, if she really wants to use her PhD, then she has to serve as his translator and assistant, rather than seek out an academic position of her own. On top of this, she has a son to care for, born a year after defending her dissertation.

This is the story of Clara Immerwahr, Germany’s first female doctoral recipient in chemistry, and a main character in the tragedy that is modern chemical warfare. If this was a Greek drama, one could compare her to Cassandra of Troy – a brilliant woman whose wisdom and learned skills were ignored, only to bring devastation and tragedy.

Clara Immerwahr was born on June 21, 1870, in what is now Poland. Immerwahr was interested in science as a young girl, growing up with a scientist father who used his skills to become a wealthy farmer. He encouraged his daughter’s interests in the natural world, including chemistry. Although girls could not attend the gymnasium in Germany, a step required to enter university at the time, the young Immerwahr studied under private tutors and eventually earned the equivalent of a high school degree. She began studying at the University of Breslau in 1896, where she met both Richard Abegg, her future doctoral adviser, and Fritz Haber, her future husband.1

Fritz Haber, Clara Immerwahr’s husband and the “father of chemical warfare,” c. 1919. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

As a graduate student, Immerwahr worked closely with Abegg, the scientist responsible for much of our understanding of freezing points within physical chemistry.2 But her adviser’s friendship and her natural talent for the subject did not prevent her colleagues from harassing her. Like many women today, Immerwahr documented a paper trail of unfair treatment, and eventually transferred to a different lab in order to distance herself from her colleague’s dismissive and rude behavior.3 After defending her dissertation, she married Haber, who was beginning work on common toxins seen in organic material, such as ammonia and chloride.

At first, Haber seemed an ideal match. He was a brilliant scholar, as well as a fellow convert to Christianity. Both Haber and Immerwahr were passionate scholars pursuing degrees in chemistry. Haber was focused on organic chemistry, and initially was too preoccupied to invest much in a new relationship with his fellow chemist. But eventually, he saw that Immerwahr’s similar background and intellect would perhaps make a good match, and they were married in 1901.4

As any modern academic could tell you, it can be extremely difficult to manage both a demanding career in research and running a home with a small child. Haber took it one step further, and insisted that he, before his wife had any children, came first in the household. He dictated how and where Immerwahr could work, but also how she was expected to manage their home. He also demanded that Immerwahr should not only serve as his assistant, but also as his translator. This was brutal for Immerwahr, whose true talent and passion was in research, not than clerical work for her husband.5

While readers might recognize this turn of events in Immerwahr’s career as the typical of pre-war Europe’s sexism against women in academia, many women today are probably reading this having experienced something similar. Even in the 21st century, women – even talented academics – are expected to put their families before their careers once they marry and have children.6 Immerwahr once said bitterly to a friend, “The life I got from (research) was very brief . . . and the main reasons for that was Fritz’s oppressive way of putting himself first in our home and marriage, so that a less ruthlessly self-assertive personality was simply destroyed.”7

To make things worse, the world teetered on the brink of global war, which Immerwahr’s husband sought to profit from. Haber worked on many of the gases used in the front lines in World War I, from mustard gas to zyklon. Immerwahr, a lifelong pacifist, was horrified and disgusted by her husband’s research, which would lead to the loss of countless lives.

John Singer Sargent, “Gassed,” 1918-1919, which depicts soldiers after a mustard gas attack. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Immerwahr could not practice the work she had been trained to do. She could not research the chemistry that she excelled in. Society told her to support her husband, whose views and ego stood against everything she believed. She made a drastic move, dying by suicide with her husband’s pistol in 1915. Her son, Hermann, only twelve years old, found her dying in the family garden, the bullet having fatally pierced her heart.8

Her story is a tragic, but not uncommon, window into unhappy marriages and even unhappier academics, and remains a footnote in Haber’s own brutal legacy as the “father of chemical warfare.” Immerwahr’s legacy has a small silver lining – the Clara Immerwahr Award recognizes young female scientists, something Immerwahr would have perhaps wanted, had the opportunity been there for her.

Notes

  1. Bretislav Friedrich and Dieter Hoffmann, “Clara Immerwahr: A Life in the Shadow of Fritz Haber,” in One Hundred Years of Chemical Warfare: Research, Deployment, Consequences, ed. Friedrich B., Hoffmann D., Renn J., Schmaltz F., Wolf M. (Springer International Publishing, 2017), 45-67. Return to text.
  2. R. Abegg “Die Valenz und das periodische System. Versuch einer Theorie der Molekularverbindungen” [Valency and the periodic table. Attempt at a theory of molecular compounds]. Zeitschrift für anorganische Chemie (in German) 39, no. 1 (1904): 330–380. Return to text.
  3. Ryan Carty, “Casualty of War,” Chemical Heritage Magazine, 30, no. 2 (2010). Retrieved March 22, 2018. Return to text.
  4. Friedrich and Hoffmann, 45-67. Return to text.
  5. Carty, “Casualty of War.”Return to text.
  6. T. M. Heijstra and G. L. Rafnsdottir, “The Internet and Academics’ Workload and Work–Family Balance,” The Internet and Higher Education 13, no. 2 (2010): 158-163.Return to text.
  7. Friedrich and Hoffmann, 52. Return to text.
  8. Carty, “Casualty of War.” Return to text.

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