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HABER'S CHOICE, HOBSON'S CHOICE, AND BIOLOGICAL WARFARE NEWTOL PRESS* When the 1918 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to the German scientist Fritz Haber in 1919, two French nominees for other Nobel Prizes announced that they would decline their awards because Haber was "morally unfit" for the honor. The prize was awarded to Haber for his work in ammonia synthesis, work that still bears his name and that was valuable in producing nitrogen fertilizers for agricultural use. He added the Nobel Prize to the Iron Cross and other honors he received for his achievements. The French objectors found no fault with his work on ammonia but pointed to his leading role in producing poison gas. In fact, Haber's name was on a list of war criminals for a short time, and he grew a beard to disguise himself when he sought refuge in Switzerland. He was never tried [I]. In retrospect, nitrogen fertilizers may have saved more lives from starvation than were ruined by poison gas, permitting later generations to concur with Haber's colleagues who stressed the international character of science. Before Haber, Archimedes, Galileo, and Leonardo earned part of their keep by serving the military interests of their patrons . As the cruel memories of the Great War faded and as increasingly terrible weapons replaced the horrors of poison gas, Haber has been remembered more kindly than he was by the French who fought against him. Poison gas is still used in our day, but new dangers have intensified the moral dilemmas that face nations and scientists [2]. Our destructive powers are beyond the imaginations of our ancestors, forcing choices between nation and humankind, between self-service and self-sacrifice, between means and ends [3]. Even for Haber the choice was not simple: regarding himself as a citizen of the world during peacetime, he was a *Department of Biological Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, P.O. Box 413, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53201.© 1985 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 003 1-5982/86/2901-0464$01 .00 92 \ Newtol Press ¦ Biological Warfare patriot in war. When his wife Clara, herself a chemist, argued against his working on poison gas, he was not persuaded, with the tragic result that she committed suicide on the day of his departure for the eastern front [4]· We might expect scientists to take the long view, to apply their dispassionate objectivity to human affairs, to put petty squabbles among nations into the larger perspective of the development of our species, and to be pacifists. Of course, this expectation fails. Einstein was a pacifist during the First World War but not in the second. A German physicist had published an important paper on nuclear fission in 1939, and Germany had stopped the sale of uranium from its occupied Czechoslovakian mines—indications that the Nazis were about to use the chain reactions generated by nuclear collisions to produce a monstrous weapon. Einstein signed a letter written by Leo Szilard that convinced President Roosevelt to initiate the Manhattan Project [5]. Current debates on nuclear weapons have followed the ruts worn by debates on previous vehicles of destruction, with the same words that had been used to warn of the dangers of poison gas applied afresh to each innovation. There was even a conference banning the use ofpoison gas, a Hague Conference, to which Great Britain was a signatory in 1907 and which had been signed by Germany much earlier. It was not hard to sign in those years, in which gas did not appear to be a formidable weapon. By 1915, Haber and others had produced the technological developments that converted the Hague Conference into an outdated gesture. Biological Disarmament Just as gases seemed to be impractical weapons in 1907, biological weapons were limited in 1969. It was easy to renounce them then, in the antiquity of molecular biology. Lobbyists who opposed germ warfare were rewarded by President Nixon's announcement of unilateral biological disarmament. In ordering the destruction of America's biological arsenal, Nixon's words were: "Mankind already carries in its own hands too many of the seeds of its own destruction. By the examples we set today, we hope to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 92-108
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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