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article imageOp-Ed: Remembering Clara Immerwahr in the Year of Chemistry

By Shawn Kay     Jul 1, 2011 in World
Clara Immerwahr was the courageous chemist who dared to take a lone stand against her husband and an entire empire in opposition to chemical warfare. How will she be remembered in the International Year of Chemistry?
Last month marked the birth date of a very unique and special woman.
The date of June 21, marked the birthday of Clara Immerwahr.
Born on that date in 1870, Ms. Immerwahr was a Jewish-German chemist who is best remembered for her stance against chemical weapons.
Her position against the use of chemical weapons during World War One placed her at odds with her husband, Fritz Haber, also a fellow chemist who not only supported the use of such weapons but played the lead role in production of toxic gas in what was then known as the German Empire. Her position also placed her at odds with the ruling establishment of that empire.
Her continued outspoken disdain for chemical warfare would earn her pariah status in German society as her husband would deem her a traitor to the Fatherland.
At one point Ms. Immerwahr even condemned chemical warfare as a "perversion of science."
Germany’s first major test with chemical weapons would be the use of chlorine gas against Allied troops at Ypres on April 22, 1915.
Haber directed the chemical-based massacre that left 5,000 Allied troops dead and another 10,000 maimed.
Germany's use of chlorine on that day would spark a brutal chemical weapons arms race between it and the Allied forces that would lead to the deaths of nearly 100,000 troops on both sides before the war was finally over.
Upon returning to the German home front from Ypres, Haber was celebrated nationally as a war hero. The German establishment and the newspapers were full of praise while the Supreme War Council promoted him to the rank of Captain.
However, Haber did not receive such a warm homecoming from his wife when he returned to their Berlin home.
Ms. Immerwahr was absolutely livid and tore into Haber for planning and then carrying out the chemical attack at Ypres while Haber in turn blasted her as a traitor to the Fatherland.
No longer able to convey in mere words to her husband or the empire the disdain she had for chemical weapons, Ms. Immerwahr would now resort to a different but more darker and violent medium to express her disapproval.
In the darkness of the early morning hours of May 2, 1915, Ms. Immerwahr borrowed her husband’s revolver as he slept and went into the garden of their home.
It was there that she leveled the firearm at her left breast and pulled the trigger.
Ms. Immerwahr shot herself through the heart and would bleed to death in the garden.
Her death is mired in controversy, not so much because of how she died and why, but rather because of the manner in which Haber and the authorities handled her death.
Despite being the wife of Germany’s biggest war hero at that time there was only scant coverage of her death in the local media.
Even more suspicious and downright sinister was the destruction of a suicide letter that she had left behind.
Today, Ms. Immerwahr is remembered as a model of civic courage and humanity. An example of the social and moral responsibility of scientists.
She is remembered as someone who took a stand against injustice and never backed down or compromised her beliefs. Even in the face of severe social pressure she never compromised her beliefs.
She believed so passionately in the cause of science being used for humanity that she would take her very own life in the name of it.
To understand the phenomenal woman that Ms. Immerwahr was, it is important to take a brief look back at a what appears to be a particularly defining event in her life: her university graduation.
It was on December 12, 1900, that Ms. Immerwahr was awarded a doctorate in chemistry and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Breslau. She was the first woman to ever receive a Ph.D in Germany.
A local newspaper covering the historic national achievement was there when Ms. Immerwahr recited a professional oath to, “never in speech or writing to teach anything that is contrary to my beliefs. To pursue truth and to advance the dignity of science to the heights which it deserves.”
Ms. Immerwahr personally felt that chemistry should be a science that is used to advanced and better the human condition.
Ms. Immerwahr lived by those beliefs and eventually died by them as well.
Interestingly, those very same sentiments that she lived and died by are also echoed in the International Year of Chemistry 2011 (IYC 2011) and are actually the basis for it.
A few months ago in April, United Nations Secretary General Ban ki-Moon delivered a speech at the Remembrance Day for all Chemical Weapons Victims, an annual special event held by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons at their Hague-based headquarters.
In his speech, Ban was quoted as “declaring 2011 the International Year of Chemistry in order to celebrate chemistry as a science of peace and progress.”
IYC 2011 is an international year-long event celebration of the science of chemistry and is being coordinated by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
The event commemorates the achievements of chemistry, and its contributions to humankind.
Ms. Immerwahr’s personal beliefs and ideals on chemistry mirror those of IYC 2011, especially the part about chemistry being a science of peace and celebrating it’s contributions to humanity.
I see much of Ms. Immerwahr’s presence in IYC 2011.
Writing this article has been a profoundly poignant and intimate experience for me.
Though Ms. Immerwahr and myself are several eras apart, her views and beliefs resonate with me. I admire her more than any other person. She is a personal role model of mine and I have always admire her deeply for her convictions.
I am currently studying in the hopes of one day being a counter-proliferation specialist. Such a person works to keep Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) from those who should never have it, namely, terrorist organizations and rouge nations as well as working to significantly reduce such destructive armaments in nations that already have them.
As a counter-proliferation specialist I particularly hope to specialize in the section of WMD that involves chemical weapons.
I’m also interested in becoming a hazardous materials specialist. Though these are normally two separate careers, they share many parallels and I strongly believe that I may be able to marry them together.
I have dedicated my future career in public safety/national security to Ms. Immerwahr.
I sometimes daydream about what it would have been like to follow her about as she went about her day while heeding professional and scientific advice offered by her. Taking notes on a clipboard or in a notebook with due diligence as any good intern or protégé would.
Under her tutelage and guidance I would have been an even more exceptional asset to the public safety profession and society.
I think you can tell a lot about a person by their personal heroes and role models or those they seek to emulate.
Obviously, a man or woman who seeks to emulate the lifestyle of a notable missionary, human or civil rights advocate, social worker or an investigative news journalist who highlights stories on injustice will have a different outlook and values than someone who seeks to emulate a notable celebrity, socialite or business tycoon/mogul.
Since the 70’s, Germany has sought to make amends with Ms. Immerwahr for it’s poor treatment of her when she was alive.
While never truly admitting that the use of chemical warfare was wrong in the defense of national interests during World War One, Germany has now acknowledged Ms. Immerwahr’s stance against the use of such weapons as courageous.
In honor of her and in her name, the German state has significantly increased funding in it’s educational system for science programs aimed at female students.
There is a street in Berlin that is named in her honor while the house that she shared with her infamous husband has been declared a national landmark.
Germany does not produce or stockpile any chemical weapons today and is in fact a significant counter-proliferation force as it works with other European Union nations and the United States to tamp down the spread of WMD – chemical, biological, radiological/nuclear weapons.
This is clearly a different Germany and a different era.
Through it all Ms. Immerwahr remained true to that oath she took so many years ago when she officially became a chemist, the same oath that she recited in a local newspaper that would carry her words to the public on a national level: “never in speech or writing to teach anything that is contrary to my beliefs. To pursue truth and to advance the dignity of science to the heights which it deserves.” By remaining true to that oath, she remained true to herself.
She would have really liked 2011 – The International Year of Chemistry.
A heroine of science and humanity.
Happy Birthday Clara.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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