When science goes horribly wrong

Sarin gas made a horrific appearance in the Syrian civil war. Its origins go back 200 years in a drama with chemists as the lead actors, writes Laurie Zoloth.


In September, the world watched a fierce debate about the limits of the law and the horror of a poison gas attack in Syria. For many it seemed odd. Why was the international community ready to go to war over this attack when thousands of lives had already been lost to conventional weaponry? For the answer, we have to go back nearly 200 years to the beginnings of a tale in three acts in which science and scientists play a central role.

Act One
The world in danger of collapse
At the end of the 18th century, a major intellectual struggle rages about prospects for the future. On one side is Thomas Malthus predicting a human population explosion and a desperate world.

On the other is William Godwin and the Romantics, who argue that “enlightened reason” and scientific inquiry will see humanity progress towards perfection.

By the end of the 19th century, this debate is no longer theoretical. The prospect of a global food shortage is suddenly very real. Until 1898, 100% of nitrogen used in farming, the cornerstone of food production, was mined and shipped from Chile as guano, bird droppings built up over centuries but by then running out. If that happens, farming will collapse and millions will starve. British chemist Sir William Crookes, later to be president of the Royal Society, warns that “England and all civilised nations are in deadly peril of not having enough to eat”.

But Sir William believes the looming catastrophe can be averted through science and launches an international competition to find a synthetic source of nitrogen.

“It is through the laboratory that starvation may ultimately be turned into plenty,” he says.

Enter Fritz Haber, master chemist.

He is raised in a Jewish family and married to one of Germany’s first university-trained women chemists. They convert to Lutheranism to gain acceptance in an anti-Semitic Germany. He competes fiercely and methodically for the British nitrogen prize. His idea is to “fix” the free nitrogen in the air into a usable form, ammonia. Collaborating with industrialist Robert Bosch and the full force of the emerging German industrial state, he completes the task by 1900.

Called the Haber-Bosch Process, it revolutionises food production. City-sized plants are built by Bosch’s company, IG Farben. Grain yields are so high that huge new storage silos have to be built. Haber becomes the country’s most important scientist, later winning the Nobel Prize, his process said to have saved two billion lives a year.

They begin what is called ‘the war of the chemists’.

Act Two
Scientists at war

The German high command turns to Haber as the Great War is mired in the trenches. He is persuaded that if he develops his gases as weapons, it will end the war quickly, saving millions of lives. Despite frantic protests from his wife, he turns his lab over to weaponising ammonia gas. He develops the gas mask. His wife commits suicide in despair.

The gas is far more deadly than Haber anticipates, and the masks less effective.

The French retaliate. Haber’s main opponent is a former colleague (who will also win a Nobel Prize), Victor Griegnard, who works with mustard gas, beginning what is to be called “the war of the chemists”. Scientists have turned the battlefield into a place of unthinkable terror, so great that it leads to the total ban on the use of poison gas in war, a ban that has largely held to this day.

After the war, no American or European colleague will look Haber in the face or shake his hand, even at the Nobel Prize award ceremony. Haber tries to redeem his reputation by again turning chemistry toward agriculture. Rats are ravaging grain stores. He develops a new rat poison.

Act Three
Nazis come to power

The story of the scientist who saved the world with chemistry, and then threatened it with chemistry, does not end well.

When Hitler rises to power, he calls Haber “that Jew” and orders him to purge the organisation he directs, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, of all Jewish scientists. Haber himself is ordered to develop the rat poison for an ominous new use. Finally overwhelmed by the ethical issues, he refuses and flees. He is offered a position at the new Hebrew University in Jerusalem but dies en route to Palestine.

Back in his lab, the pesticide becomes Zyklon B, to be used in the gas chambers against Jews, Roma, gays and Communists. But never against soldiers. Even Hitler, terrified by gas in the trenches, refuses to use it against the Allied troops.

The IG Farben labs in 1938 also develop sarin gas, the deadly nerve agent. It is eventually used in that Syrian gas attack.

And then?
Since the Great War, the ban on the use of gas in war has largely held (with the exception of Saddam Hussein’s use against the Kurds) until the Syrian conflict.

The reason that the world reacts so intensely is not because it is worse to gas people than to shoot them, but because poison gas is a symbol of what it means to maintain a civilised world. Poison gas is a parable of science intended for great good being used for great evil, of the dangers of science in service of the state, and of the need for scientists to understand the limits of the power they create and thus control.

The ethical duties of the scientist begin by remembering their history as they continue to expand and explore this power.

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Laurie Zoloth is a professor of medical ethics and humanities at Northwestern University, Chicago.
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