Every chemist should read @exlarson's 'In The Garden Of Beasts'

Oct 26 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Chemist Fritz Haber (right) appears in Erik Larson's 'In The Garden Of Beasts'.

In the summer of 1933, University of Chicago professor William Dodd became America's ambassador to Germany.  Shortly after taking   up  his official duties in Germany, Dodd was visited by someone every chemist knows - Fritz Haber.

Haber was a Nobel laureate,  his work both celebrated and vilified.  He was a WWI veteran.  He was a science giant, serving as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry.   He was a "Non-Aryan".

While Haber's veteran status allowed him to remain director of Kaiser Wilhelm institute, 25% of the institute's staff would loose their positions under a new Nazi law aimed at purging the German civil service of 'Non-Aryans'".

Haber did not fire his friends and colleagues   He resigned rather than obey the order to rid the institute of "Non-Aryans".

Haber had realized that everything would be taken away.  Haber came to Dodd for help.

It was here - Haber's meeting with Dodd - where I realized my mistake.  "Here" was in chapter 9 of Erik Larson's In The Garden Of Beasts, a view of the years leading up to WWII through the eyes of the America's ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his family.  My mistake?  I had relegated Haber to the Historically Important Chemist Club - where the chemists are renown, but not truly known - their lives reduced to a list of professional achievements.

Prior to picking up Larson's book, I knew Haber - like Niels BohrAlbert Einstein, and Enrico Fermi (whose wife Laura was Jewish) - had fled regions hostile to "Non-Aryans".  I knew the Nazification of Germany was in full swing by Dodd's arrival in the summer of 1933 and what the next 12 years would bring.  But there was something about Larson's portrait of Dodd and Haber... reading Dodd's summary of his meeting with Haber... it got me.

It got me to really see the life, not just the career.  Something easy to do with our cohorts, something challenging to do with our giants.

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In The Garden Of Beasts cover image from Goodreads

Fritz Haber image from Nobelprize.org

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