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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Casualty of Marriage: The Tragedy of Clara Immerwahr, Germany's first Woman Doctor of Chemistry

The lady researcher

Is always fumbling about,

searching and probing around her,

For problems to fathom;

She studies and parlays and memorizes and discusses

but can find no satisfaction.

She searches out famous scholars,

Discusses philosophical problems,

Studies creation and the course of the stars.

She even dares to approach the most difficult topics.

She listens to colleagues, dabbles in music,

Sculpture, painting, dragging the quill, and

Practices making pointed critical statements,

Not to mention trying out every brand of bicycle.

But then she meets a certain man,

Who isn't smart, or well-read,

But who begins to teach her New Things,

And from that she starts to recover from scholarly pursuits.

And soon says "Yes" and becomes his bride,

He has banished her need to study;

She looks into his eyes, enchanted,

and she desires no longer to research but only,

to love!

When this poem was making the rounds in Germany in the late 19th century, it was universally understood and appreciated as a clever attack on the phenomenon of the Lady Researcher, an artful dissection of her ridiculous predilections, and a knowing wink towards what she Really Wanted. And yet, while businessmen and government officials were guffawing over the image of the bicycle-riding, piano-practicing, science-crunching bluestocking, a brilliant woman from Breslau was quietly working towards that nation's first PhD in chemistry, dissuaded not in the least by the popular sniggering. She was Clara Immerwahr (1870-1915) and, while the poem might have predicted a happy matrimonial end to her youthful researches, the reality was anything but, encompassing a decade of slow betrayal at the hands of her duplicitous, chemical weapon obsessed husband, capped ultimately by an honorable but desperate suicide.

Yes, it's going to be one of those stories. Buckle in.

For a person who had such a lamentable end, Immerwahr's youth was remarkably stable. Her father was a chemist who witnessed and benefited from Germany's Golden Age of Chemistry, when industrial chemistry, allied to university research, was daily opening new doors in what might be synthesized for the good of the world. New fabrics, fuels, and dyes poured out of German institutions to replace difficult to import natural resources, expanding the German economy and making the nation the world's undisputed leader in physical research.

Clara's father saw the good being wrought by chemical studies and, when his daughter Clara declared her passion for science, he supported her, providing private teachers to make up for the post-elementary schooling that girls weren't allowed to have, and backed her as she fought against German bureaucracy to attend university level classes. A select handful of women were being allowed to attend classes, but they had to ask each professor individually for a seat in his class, and were often turned down. Immerwahr, through perseverance and sheer talent, managed not only to take the classes she needed, but to find a research position under Dr. Richard Abegg, where she conducted studies of photochemical effects, work she performed so well that Abegg suggested she tackle something new, a survey of the solubility of hard-metal salts. As anybody who took chemistry in high school perhaps remembers, these are the salts that are classified as "slightly soluble," a maddeningly unhelpful term that it was Immerwahr's task to quantify at last.

This was the age when technology, technique, and theory had finally advanced to the point that the physical properties of chemical compounds could at last be decisively measured, where electrochemical properties were plumbed and principles we take for granted, like Nernst's third law of thermodynamics, were first uncovered. And Immerwahr fit right in, her work on the solubility of Mercury, Copper, Lead, Cadmium, and Zinc salts was widely respected and led to her being awarded Germany's first PhD in chemistry, magna cum laude.

She received her doctorate in 1900, and had precisely one year to enjoy the fruits of her long, hard scramble to respectability. Because that's when a young chemist she had known in her youth came back into her life, a passionate, vain, and determined genius named Fritz Haber. He was impressed by her sharp mind and asked her to be his bride.

Now, there were many things Immerwahr intended to do with her life, and being a bride was resolutely not one of them. She had seen other women get swallowed up in housework, receding into the background, their interests extinguished one by one in the name of making life comfortable for their husbands, and she knew that she did not want to give up the research she loved for such a life.

Haber persisted. He painted beautiful pictures of the two of them, working at neighboring research stations, sharing the excitement of scientific inquiry together, something like the life enjoyed by the Curies. It was an enticing picture, and Immerwahr allowed herself to believe it. She said yes. It was the word that ended her career.

They were married in 1901 and from then until she took her own life in 1915, she found herself pushed further and further into the role of traditional housewife. The idea of her pursuing her own research ends was quickly thrown aside as she was brought into Haber's research not as an equal scientific partner, but rather as an occasional helpmate/secretary/translator, a minimal role that was also destined to crumble. In 1902, she had a son, Hermann, whose early years were filled with sickness it fell entirely to her to watch over. Between tending to Hermann and making sure that the guests Fritz brought home had food and entertainment, Immerwahr's life as a scientist was done. Fritz happily left all the details of the household and childcare to her while he spent long hours away from home, researching or gathering together money to build new research institutes or just drinking with the boys while discussing scientific and political topics. When he was home, and with important guests, she was expected to depart from the room without adding to the conversation.

She did manage to find some outlets for her talents, performing as a guest speaker for the German women's societies that were beginning to find ways to circumvent the societal restrictions that had kept women from basic knowledge about the world and science. Her topics centered around the chemistry of the household, an area that Ellen Swallow had single-handedly turned into five or six new branches of science in America the previous century. Piercing through the veil of governmentally enforced silence, Immerwahr told her audience about the chemical makeup of the food they cooked and the materials they used, urging them to learn more about the science of their environment and themselves.

And meanwhile the press continued its war against women's education. An article by Wilhelm Ostwald held that the extension of women's rights was a danger to women and to the entire institution of German science, pointing to the fact that the nations with the greatest extension of women's rights were also those with the least development of scientific research: Australia and, shudder, New Zealand.

I mean, sure, we can give women equal rights... I'm just saying we'll end up like New Zealand. If that's what you want, to be New Zealand, then go ahead and let women know what syphilis is...

Haber, perhaps predictably, defended Ostwald's work, driving another wedge between his life and Immerwahr's, one which widened into a chasm with the coming of World War I. Haber had made an international reputation on his process for turning nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia, thereby allowing the production not only of massive amounts of agricultural fertilizer, but also gunpowder. Without that process, we would simply not be able to feed our population as it now stands, and in fact 80% of the nitrogen in your body right now came from a Haber reaction.

It was a critical advance that allowed Germany to carry on the war in spite of the Allied blockade of its traditional saltpeter sources, and it gave Haber an important position at the head of the German military chemical industry. And among his first charges in that regard was the development of new chemical weapons, including methods of weaponizing chlorine gas. While Germany lost its head in war euphoria, Immerwahr drew back in disappointment at how so many women so readily gave their sons up to death and mutilation. She was horrified by the work her husband was doing, and by his evident pride in creating weapons that could snuff hundreds of lives in a moment. He thought of himself as a hero who was bringing the war to a faster end. She could only regard what he was doing as a perversion of the life-sustaining purpose of scientific research.

Their differences over Haber's poison gas research led to a massive argument. Haber forbade her from uttering any criticism of chemical weapons, either to him or to anybody else. She was to be mute and compliant. The sequence of events after that argument isn't entirely clear, but the end result was that, after writing a series of farewell letters, she found one of Haber's guns, loaded with two shots. She fired one into the sky to make sure that it worked, and pointed the next round at her heart. She died in her son Hermann's arms while Fritz, for his part, woke up the next morning and took a train to supervise the deployment of poison gas attacks on the Eastern front.

In an interesting coincidence, Haber was joined in his work by Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner's research partner who ultimately betrayed her trust and friendship in the name of his own self-importance much as Haber stifled Immerwahr's hopeful career in order to make a comfortable and non-challenging home for himself. Somewhere in the midst of all that craven, self-serving diminution of a young scientist's promise, lies the puzzling character of Clara Immerwahr herself, a women's rights activist in a society that held women's education as simultaneously primordially dangerous and superficially amusing, a pacifist in wartime, and a scientist poised for greatness at the center of a scientific revolution, reduced to housewifery by a charming and deceptive colleague. When she died, the newspapers reported the cause of death as Unknown so as to spare the reputation of her husband, Germany's hero chemist.


The book to have is Der Fall Clara Immerwahr: Leben für eine humane Wissenschaft (1993) by Gerit von Leitner. It's in German, and you get long stretches that talk more about the minutiae of Haber's institutional and industrial arrangements than about Clara's life, but it's a great book about chemistry in the age of Bunsen and Nernst and Hoffman and Haber, and how the nascent women's rights movement was trying to negotiate that space.


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