The Tragic Life of Clara Immerwahr

Clara Immerwahr

Clara Immerwahr (source)

Clara Immerwahr was brilliant . . . with bad taste in men. But Clara’s bad choice translated into a very tragic story.

Clara was the youngest of four children in a comfortable, cultured family. They spent most of the year on the family farm and winters in Breslau with Clara’s grandmother. She and her sisters were tutored privately and attended a girls’ school located in her grandmother’s home.

Although her sisters wanted to marry, Clara bristled at the mention of the “prospective sphere of women’s occupations.” She was interested in natural science and had a desire to be financially independent. When her mother died in 1890, her father turned operation of the farm over to Clara’s sister Elli and her husband and moved with Clara to Breslau. There she attended a teacher’s seminary where the principal recognized her abilities and gave her a copy of Conversations on Chemistry by Jane Marcet. 

After completing her teacher training, Clara worked as a governess, but she still had a desire for more training in science, specifically chemistry. Her father’s university degree was in chemistry and he was delighted to support and help her.

By 1896, women were allowed to attend university lectures at Breslau as visitors, but Clara continued to fight for permission to take the qualifying exam for admittance into the doctoral program. In 1898, she became the first woman to pass the exam. Then on December 12, 1900, she achieved another first when she graduated magna cum laude with a Ph.D. in chemistry, becoming the first woman to receive this degree from a German university.

In spite of her achievement, it was still a boys club. Clara was able to work as an assistant to Richard Abegg, her doctoral advisor, do some research and give lectures to women’s organizations and schools, but she was limited because of her gender.

Around this time, Clara became reacquainted with Fritz Haber. Fritz had proposed to her several years before, but she had turned him down. At the time she was focused on her own studies. When they met again in the spring of 1901, the flame was rekindled and they married in August of that year.

Haber had developed quite a reputation. He was respected for his work in chemistry and had developed a method to convert nitrogen in the atmosphere into compounds that could be used in fertilizer. This method revolutionized agriculture and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918.

Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber in 1919 (source)

Fritz was a professor at the Technological University in Karlsruhe. He was ambitious and frequently brought home guests unannounced. Clara thought at first that she would be able to continue her research, but the demands of homemaking and soon motherhood proved too much. However, she did collaborate with Fritz on his work and on a textbook about thermodynamics. He dedicated the book to Clara with thanks for “quiet collaboration.”

In spite of this, he had little respect for Clara’s work. As a workaholic, he also had little time for Clara and their son, Hermann. He traveled frequently and had affairs with other women.

Fritz Haber’s star continued to rise and in 1911, he was appointed head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. This honor came with a position as professor at the University of Berlin and membership in the Prussian Academy of Science. In spite of these honors, he may have felt some pressure to prove his patriotism.

Both Fritz and Clara were Jewish and had converted to Christianity in 1893 and 1897, respectively. Antisemitism was prevalent, including a ban preventing Jews from being officers in the army, and even very talented people of Jewish birth came under suspicion.

When the war broke out in 1914, Fritz volunteered his services and soon came up with a horrifying idea. He concentrated his work on poison gas and suggested that chlorine gas could be released to drift over the enemy’s position, disabling them without bombardment.

Clara was appalled and on more than one occasion begged him to stop his research on chemical warfare. She opposed him openly and he accused her in public of treasonous statements. When Clara received her Ph.D., she took an 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.” She believed that Fritz had perverted the ideals of science.

There were also German commanders who thought the use of poisonous gas was “unchivalrous” or “repulsive,” but might be necessary if it meant victory. The first gas attack occurred on April 22, 1915 at Ypres in Belgium. After waiting for the winds to be just right, 168 tons of chlorine gas were released and drifted over the Allied troops, killing over half of them within minutes. A second attack was launched two days later.

Fritz was promoted to captain and returned to Berlin to a party in his honor on May 2, the day before he was to go to the Eastern front to oversee similar attacks. Early in the morning after the party, Clara took her husband’s revolver into the garden and shot herself. Her son heard the shot and she died in his arms. The next day Fritz went to the Russian front leaving 13-year old Hermann to deal with his mother’s suicide alone.

Since the 1970s, Clara’s life has received more attention. She is seen as an example of protest against the misuse of science. The most prestigious award given by the German section of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War is called the Clara Immerwahr award; the University of Dortmund has a mentoring project for women named for her; and Clara is the subject of Tony Harrison’s play Square Rounds. It may have taken a little time, but she hasn’t been forgotten.

Jewish Women’s Archive: Clara Immerwahr
Smithsonian Magazine: Past Imperfect: Fritz Haber’s Experiments in Life and Death

Read about other Women in Mathematics and Science.

Bess Truman – Harry’s One True Love

Bess Truman - special photo taken just before Harry went to war in 1917

Bess Truman – special photo taken just before Harry went to war in 1917

I like Harry Truman. I might not agree with all the decisions he made as President, but I like the person he was. One thing I like about Harry is that once he set his mind to something, he did it, if at all possible. He never let discouragement derail him. He failed frequently, but didn’t let that keep him from trying something different. One thing that seemed impossible from the beginning was winning the heart and hand of Bess Wallace.

Elizabeth Virginia Wallace (Bessie to the family) was born in Independence, Missouri on February 13, 1885. Her parents, David Willock Wallace and Margaret Elizabeth Gates Wallace (Madge), were both well liked in the community, but were certainly not equal in social standing. Bessie’s maternal grandfather, George Porterfield Gates, owned a milling company that distributed flour throughout the Midwest. Her paternal grandfather, Benjamin Wallace, had been a politician serving as mayor of Independence and in the Missouri state legislature. Benjamin Wallace died eight years before Bess was born, and although the Wallace’s were a part of her life, their influence would fade in comparison to that of the Gate’s clan. George Porterfield Gates was against Madge marrying David, but gave in when they threatened to elope. He was afraid that David Wallace wouldn’t be able to support his daughter in the manner to which she was accustomed. He was right.

Bessie at age 5

When Bess was two years old, the family moved to a house on North Delaware St, a very fashionable address two blocks from the Gate’s family home. As the first grandchild, she was petted and spoiled by her Gates grandparents and aunts and uncles. Bess was easy to love and dote upon. She was a bright, pretty, and outgoing child with golden hair and blue eyes. Three brothers followed to compete for this attention: Frank Gates Wallace (1887), George Porterfield Wallace (1892), and David Frederick Wallace (1900).

Bess was a happy, active girl. She excelled in sports as the best tennis player in Independence, an ice skater, horsewoman, and the champion slugger on her brother’s baseball team. Madge Wallace tolerated her daughter’s athletic activities as long as Bess maintained the appropriate activities for a proper young lady, which she did. Bess attended dance classes and the entire round of social functions in Independence. She did well in school, but when it came time to go to college, as many of her friends made plans to go away, it became clear that Bess’ father couldn’t afford to send her.

Bess at age 13

Financial difficulties weren’t the only strains in the home. In the mid 1890s, another girl was born, but died within a few years. Madge had always been considered “delicate”, so by the time Bess was in high school, she was taking on more and more responsibility for her younger brothers. From the outside, things may have looked fine. David Wallace was outgoing and still involved in politics. He would play with the children and was always involved in celebrations, from setting up fireworks displays to riding at the head of parades on his black horse. Bess adored him, but his financial difficulties began to get the best of him and he started to drink. The final child, David Frederick born in 1900, only added to the strain.

David Wallace held on for another three years, but early on the morning of June 17, 1903, he got up, went into a bathroom at the back of the house and shot himself in the head. It’s hard to know exactly what went through his mind, but the years of struggling to keep up, of depending on his father-in-law to give him money, and of fulfilling Gates’ negative expectations, added to his increased drinking must have all contributed to his feelings that he couldn’t go on. The family was devastated. Mary Paxton, Bess’ best friend and next door neighbor, went over that morning to be with her. Together she walked with Bess in silence as she paced with clenched fists for several hours.

David Wallace’s death and subsequent funeral were agonizing for the family, especially for Madge. He had been the presiding officer of the Knight’s Templar, so his funeral was elaborate and well attended, but the local newspaper also wrote an article giving gruesome details of his death. Add to that the realization that he had left the family deep in debt, and Madge couldn’t handle it. She and the children moved in with her parents, but soon after the funeral left Independence to visit a relative and stayed away for over a year.

As you would expect, Bess’ father’s suicide changed her life in a number of ways. From a practical standpoint, she found herself, at age eighteen, the effective parent of her younger brothers. She also began to feel a sense of responsibility for her mother that would last for the rest of her life. On another level, although she never blamed her mother, she began to think about her parent’s relationship, what it lacked, and what she would want in a marriage, if she ever found anyone to marry.

Bess at high school graduation

After the family returned to Independence, although Madge remained basically a recluse, Bess began to become socially active again. She spent a year at the Barstow school, a finishing school for young women that prepared them for college, although many went there just to round out their high school education. Bess had suitors, but no one seemed to meet her requirements. Then in 1910, a young man knocked on the door to return a cake plate for his cousins, who were neighbors of the Wallace family. That young man was Harry S. Truman.

The way Harry told it, he had fallen in love with Bess when her first saw her in Sunday School, when she was five and he was six. Over the school years, he had never had the nerve to do more than carry her books home from school a few times, but there had never been another girl for him. In the intervening years, Harry had his own challenges and had changed quite a bit. In school he had never been athletic, probably in part to protect the eyeglasses he had to wear from the age of five; he played the piano; and he, according to his own account, “read every book in the Independence library.” His own ambitions to go to West Point were dashed partly because he would never have passed the eye exam, but also because his father lost all his money and Harry had to work to help support the family. After a time working in Kansas City, his father asked him to come home and help him run the farm that Harry’s mother had inherited with her brother. So the Harry that showed up at the Wallace home that night was suntanned and fit in a way that the younger Harry never was.

Their courtship began that night, but would last for quite a few years. After about a year, Harry proposed, in a letter. After 3 weeks of silence, Bess refused. Harry responded by thanking her for letting him down so easily, saying that he didn’t really think “that a girl like you could ever care for a fellow like me,” and continuing to write. Harry Truman didn’t discourage easily.

Bess had made it clear that she expected anyone she married to be able to support her, and Harry became focused on making money. He tried several schemes which didn’t pan out, and signed on as a partner to his father’s business, which eventually left him with more debt. In the meantime, Harry and Bess continued to write almost daily, and he had a standing invitation to her house on Sundays. In his characteristically honest way, he told her about life on the farm, but he also let her know that he was no country bumpkin, writing about operas, symphonies, and plays that he had seen when he lived in Kansas City. They discussed literature and exchanged book recommendations and criticisms.

Harry S. Truman around 1917

Finally, in the fall of 1913, Bess told Harry that if she married any man it would be him. He was elated and determined that he would be able to establish a home for her that she could be proud to live in. But everything seemed to work against him. On the farm it was the weather, then his investment in a zinc mine didn’t pan out. Then in 1917, it looked like everything might come together for them. They both invested money in an oil company and things were going very well, until the US entered WWI. The stock in the oil company immediately dropped causing them to lose almost all the money they had invested, but worse than that for Bess was that Harry felt he had to do his duty. He had re-enlisted in the National Guard, and in August he was admitted into the US Army and was scheduled to go to Europe.

Although, several of her friends got married before sending their beaux off to war, when Bess mentioned it, Harry now refused. He did not want her to be stuck with a “potential cripple.” They did however, after all these years, in spite of Madge’s objections, announce their engagement. Bess had a special photograph taken to give to Harry when he went to war. He carried it with him for the rest of his life, first into battle in his shirt pocket, and later it always had a prominent place on his desk. (This is the photo at the top of the post.)

Harry returned safely, and on June 28, 1919, at the ages of 35 and 36, Bess and Harry were finally married. They were faithful to each other throughout all the difficulties in the coming years: a failed business, taking care of Madge, and Harry’s unexpected presidency. Bess had found in Harry a man who would be open with her about all those difficulties, as well as a man who wouldn’t give up in the face of obstacles.

Harry and Bess Truman on their wedding day June 28,1919 (source)

Harry and Bess Truman on their wedding day June 28, 1919 (source)

One note of irony, however, after they were married they moved into Madge’s house “temporarily,” but lived there for the rest of their lives whenever they were in Independence.

Harry S. Truman painted by Greta Kempton (1903 – 1991)

Bess Truman painted by Greta Kempton (1903 – 1991)