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The dark history behind Nobel Prize-winning research

world Updated: Oct 05, 2015 09:06 IST
Nobel Prize

Soldiers of the People's Liberation Army anti-chemical warfare corps at work. German chemist Fritz Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1918 for his work on synthesising ammonia.(REUTERS Photo)


Think of the Nobel Prizes and you think of groundbreaking research bettering mankind, but the awards have also honoured some unhumanitarian inventions such as chemical weapons, DDT and lobotomies.

Numerous Nobel Prize controversies have erupted over the years: authors who were overlooked, scientists who claimed their discovery came first, or peace prizes that divided public opinion. But some of the prizes appear in hindsight to be embarrassing choices.

When the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize went to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, it was perhaps a way of making up for the Nobel “war prize” it awarded to German chemist Fritz Haber in 1918.

Haber was honoured with the chemistry prize for his work on the synthesis of ammonia, which was crucial for developing fertilizers for food production. But Haber, known as the “father of chemical warfare”, also developed poisonous gases used in trench warfare in World War 1.

After Germany’s defeat in the war, “he didn’t expect to win a prize. He was more afraid of a court martial,” Swedish chemist Inger Ingmanson, who wrote a book about Haber’s prize, said.

The 1918 controversy might have encouraged the Stockholm jury to think carefully about the laureates they choose after a conflict. Yet in November 1945, months after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Nobel chemistry prize honoured the discovery of nuclear fission, Otto Hahn, whose 1938 discovery was crucial to the development of atomic bombs.

However, Hahn never worked on the military applications of his discovery and upon learning, while in captivity as a prisoner-of-war in England, that a nuclear bomb had been dropped, he told his fellow captives: “I am thankful we (Germany) didn’t succeed” in building the bomb.