1919 Nobel Prize: The Controversial Decision

SpectrumLogo“Do you know about the 1919 Nobel Prize controversy?..”

Siddiq A. Mirza


April 1, 2016


Do you know about the 1919 Nobel Prize controversy? A German scientist named Fritz Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1919 for his work in producing synthetic ammonia, a chemical which is used for fertilizing crops to harvest larger yields. That sounds great, Siddiq; so, what’s the big deal? The controversy arises when one realizes Haber was highly instrumental in developing mustard gas and other agents for gas warfare in World War I. In addition, he also supplied ammonia for the production of ammunition and explosives, although it is arguable he was merely assisting his country in war — he was a chemist in Germany’s Ministry of War, after all — by creating these warfare mechanisms (“Haber, Fritz”). Nevertheless, despite his past, Haber’s ground-breaking scientific discovery served to help humanity at large, and he indeed received the Nobel Prize in 1919.

The number one reason why Haber won the 1919 Nobel Prize was because of his extremely beneficial scientific discovery. Before we dissect the discovery, it is important to understand what the Nobel Prize is awarded for. In Alfred Nobel’s will, he writes that one of the Nobel Prizes be given to the one who has made the most important chemical improvement or discovery in the preceding year (“Full”). Haber was the one responsible for the synthesis of the very important and useful ammonia gas, from its elements in the Haber-Bosch process. In the process of synthesizing ammonia gas, Haber tried various temperatures and pressures to produce the gas at a large rate, but was unsuccessful overall (DiGiuseppe 437). Next, he tried an iron oxide catalyst, which was ultimately successful in producing ammonia at a lower temperature and pressure (DiGiuseppe 437). Using a catalyst and producing ammonia at lower temperatures and pressures allowed the process to be efficient (DiGiuseppe 437). One can see that throughout his discovery, Haber tried multiple times to produce ammonia gas and was finally awarded for his patience when he was able to produce ammonia gas efficiently and economically.

Subsequently, Haber’s discovery has also greatly aided humanity at large. In the late nineteenth century, there was a huge population growth in North America and Europe which resulted in a lack of food supply (DiGiuseppe 437). Farmers started to use nitrogen to fertilize their fields but realized that their nitrogen sources were limited (DiGiuseppe 437). The Haber-Bosch process helped relieve this problem as ammonia gas was able to be produced easily and efficiently to help fertilize crops and create larger yields (DiGiuseppe 437). It is estimated that 30-40% of the world’s population would not be alive, if not for this invention (“Haber-Bosch”). This fact demonstrates the sheer amount of global benefit the Haber-Bosch process has created. As a matter of fact, this invention is used even up to today to help grow crops (Notman).

Essentially, Haber received the 1919 Nobel Prize for a timeless scientific discovery, which has helped humans to a great degree even almost a century later. His work not only showed innovation and brilliance in furthering the knowledge humans have about science, but also, intense flashes of dedication and perseverance in pushing on when times get tough and solutions seem formidable.



Works Cited:

Agapakis, Christina. “Nitrogen Fixation.” Scientific American. Scientific American, 14 Jan. 2012. Web. 02 Dec. 2014.

DiGiuseppe, Maurice. Nelson Chemistry 12. Toronto, Ont.: Thomson/Nelson, 2012. Print.

“Full text of Alfred Nobel’s Will”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 2 Dec 2014. http://www.nobelprize.org/alfred_nobel/will/will-full.html

“Haber-Bosch Controversy.” ScienceHeroes.com. 94W Holdings Inc., n.d. Web. Nov. 2014.

Haber, Fritz.Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 2008. Encyclopedia.com. 2 Dec. 2014 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

Notman, Nina. “Haber-Bosch Power Consumption Slashed.” Chemistryworld. Royal Society of Chemistry, 21 Oct. 2012. Web. 02 Dec. 2014.