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Paul Kammerer

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Paul Kammerer

Paul Kammerer
BornAugust 171880
DiedSeptember 231926
Puchberg am Schneeberg
Known forLamarckian theory of inheritance

Paul Kammerer (August 171880 in Vienna – September 231926 in Puchberg am Schneeberg) was an Austrian biologist who studied and advocated the discreditedLamarckian theory of inheritance – the notion that organisms may pass to their offspring characteristics they have acquired in their lifetime. He began his academic career at the Vienna Academy studying music but graduated with a degree in biology.




Like many of his generation, Kammerer undertook numerous experiments, largely involving interfering with the breeding and development of amphibians. He interested himself in the Lamarckian doctrine of acquired characteristics and eventually reported that a Midwife toad was exhibiting a black nuptial pad on its foot - an acquired characteristic brought about by adaptation to environment.

Claims arose that the result of the experiment had been falsified. The most notable of these claims was made by Dr. G. K. Noble, Curator of Reptiles at the American Museum of Natural History, in the scientific journal Nature.[1] He reported that the black pad actually had a far more mundane explanation: it had simply been injected there with Indian ink. Six weeks later, Kammerer committed suicide.


Interest in Kammerer revived in 1971, when he became the subject of a book by Arthur KoestlerThe Case of the Midwife Toad. Koestler surmised that Kammerer's experiments on the midwife toad may have been tampered with by a Nazi sympathizer at theUniversity of Vienna. Certainly, as Koestler writes, "the Hakenkreuzler, the swastika-wearers, as the [Austrian] Nazis of the early days were called, were growing in power. One of the centers of ferment was the University of Vienna[2] where, on the traditional Saturday morning student parades, bloody battles were fought. Kammerer was known by his public lectures and newspaper articles as an ardent pacifist and Socialist; it was also known that he was going to build an institute in Soviet Russia. An act of sabotage in the laboratory would have been ... in keeping with the climate of those days."

Not long before the toad had been brought to England by Kammerer to be displayed during lectures as a specimen of an acquired characteristic and had been handled by eminent zoologists, all of whom doubted the possibility of Lamarckism being valid. None of the irregularities discovered by Noble were detected at the time and, since Noble found the injected ink was rather conspicuous, this suggests that the "act of sabotage" had been committed shortly before Noble's visit to Vienna when Kammerer was no longer working at the institute.

Kammerer had already experimented with sea squirts, salamanders and other animals and believed that these experiments provided evidence of Lamarckian inheritance. He regarded the possible inheritance of a pad on the foot of a male midwife toad as of relatively minor significance in the argument. Many biologists from all over Europe visited him in Vienna and photographs and reports of his work were widely available. He approved the inspection of the specimen which was found to have been tampered with and expressed great astonishment when this was made known to him.

As a consequence interest in Lamarckian inheritance diminished except in the Soviet Union where it was championed byLysenko. The contemporary view in biology remains that acquired characteristics cannot be inherited and that every case documented by Kammerer falls in the broad category of phenotypic plasticity.

Sander Gliboff of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Indiana University has commented that, though Kammerer's conclusions proved false, his evidence was probably genuine and that he did not simply argue for Lamarckism and against Darwinism as those theories are now understood. Rather, if we look beyond the scandal, the story shows us much about the competing theories of biological and cultural evolution and the range of new ideas about heredity and variation in early 20th-century biology and the changes in experimental approach that have occurred since that time.[3]

In 2009 Alexander Vargas, an evolutionary developmental biologist, suggested that the inheritance of acquired traits (Lamarckian inheritance) Kammerer observed in the Midwife Toad could be real and explained by epigenetics[4]. Kammerer could be the true discoverer of non-Mendelian, epigenetic inheritance. The mechanism of epigenetic inheritance is a chemical modification of DNA (DNA methylation) that can be passed on to subsequent generations. Furthermore, the "parent of origin" effect which was very confusing at the time, can be explained easily today because similar effects have been discovered in other organisms.

[edit]Seriality theory

Kammerer's other passion was collecting coincidences. He published a book with the title Das Gesetz der Serie (The Law of the Series; never translated into English) in which he recounted 100 or so anecdotes of coincidences that had led him to formulate his theory of Seriality.

He postulated that all events are connected by waves of seriality. These unknown forces would cause what we would perceive as just the peaks, or groupings and coincidences. Kammerer was known to, for example, make notes in public parks of what numbers of people were passing by, how many carried umbrellas, etc. Albert Einstein called the idea of Seriality "Interesting, and by no means absurd", while Carl Jung drew upon Kammerer's work in his essay Synchronicity.[5] Koestler reported that, when researching for his biography about Kammerer, he himself was subjected to "a meteor shower" of coincidences - as if Kammerer's ghost were grinning down at him saying, "I told you so!"


  1. ^ Nature, August 7 1926
  2. ^ University 1938-1945
  3. ^ Sander Gliboff , " soft wax in our hands": Paul Kammerer and the art of biological transformation, Endeavour (Journal), volume 29 issue 4, pages 162–7, 2005
  4. ^ Elizabeth Pennisi (2009) 'The Case of the Midwife Toad: Fraud or Epigenetics?', Science, 4 September 2009: Vol. 325. no. 5945, pp. 1194 - 1195.
  5. ^ Arthur Koestler, The Roots of Coincidence, 1972, p. 87.


  • Arthur Koestler, The Case of the Midwife Toad, London: Hutchinson, 1971.
  • Sermonti, G. "Epigenetic heredity. In praise of Paul Kammerer". Riv. Biol. 93 (1): 5–12. PMID 10901054.
  • Lachman, E (March 1976). "Famous scientific hoaxes". The Journal of the Oklahoma State Medical Association 69 (3): 87–90. PMID 775032.
  • Meinecke, G (September 1973). "[The tragedy about Paul Kammerer. A scientific psychological example]". Die Medizinische Welt 24 (38): 1462–6. PMID 4587964.

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