Clara Immerwahr (21 June 1870 – 2 May 1915) was a German chemist. She was the first woman to be awarded a doctorate in chemistry in Germany. She was also both a pacifist and a women's rights activist. From 1901 until her suicide in 1915, she was married to the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Fritz Haber.
Early life and education
Immerwahr was born on the Polkendorff Farm near Breslau (then in eastern Prussia; now known as Wrocław, in western Poland). She was the youngest daughter of Jewish parents, chemist Philipp Immerwahr and his wife Anna (née Krohn). She grew up on the farm with her three older siblings, Elli, Rose and Paul. In 1890, her mother died of cancer; while Elli and her husband Siegfried stayed at the farm, Clara moved with her father to Breslau.
Immerwahr studied at the University of Breslau, in 1900 attaining her degree and a Ph.D. in chemistry under Richard Abegg. Her dissertation was entitled Beiträge zur Löslichkeitsbestimmung schwerlöslicher Salze des Quecksilbers, Kupfers, Bleis, Cadmiums und Zinks (Contributions to the Solubility of Slightly Soluble Salts of Mercury, Copper, Lead, Cadmium, and Zinc). She was the first woman Ph.D. at the University of Breslau and received the designation magna cum laude.
Marriage and work
Immerwahr married Fritz Haber in 1901, four years after she had converted to Christianity in 1897.
Due to societal expectations that a married woman's place was in the home, her ability to conduct research was limited. She instead contributed to her husband's work without recognition, translating his works into English. On 1 June 1902 she gave birth to Hermann Haber (1902–1946) the only child of that marriage.
Confiding in a friend, Immerwahr expressed her deep dissatisfaction with this subservient role:
It has always been my attitude that a life has only been worth living if one has made full use of all one's abilities and tried to live out every kind of experience human life has to offer. It was under that impulse, among other things, that I decided to get married at that time... The life I got from it 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.
During World War I, Fritz Haber became a staunch supporter of the German military effort and played an important role in the development of chemical weapons (particularly poison gases). His efforts would culminate in his supervision of the first successful deployment of a weapon of mass destruction in military history, in Flanders, Belgium on 22 April 1915.
Shortly after Haber's return from Belgium, Immerwahr, who was a pacifist, and was troubled by Haber's work on chemical weapons, shot herself in the chest using Haber's military pistol. She died in her son's arms on 2 May. The morning after her death, Haber left to stage the first gas attack against the Russians on the Eastern Front. Her suicide remained largely in the dark. Six days after her death, only the small local newspaper Grunewald-Zeitung reported that "the wife of Dr. H. in Dahlem, who is currently on the front, has set an end to her life by shooting herself. The reasons for this act of the unhappy woman are unknown." There is no evidence of an autopsy. The poorly documented circumstances of her death have resulted in considerable discussion and controversy as to her reasons. The short film Haber, written and directed by Daniel Ragussis, attempts to explore some of the issues in the couple's relationship.