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The best work on the Kammerer controversy can be found in the book The Case of the Midwife Toad by Arthur Koestler (1971, Random House).  This well researched volume was also the basis for a NOVA episode of the same name in the early 1970's (May 12, 1974, to be exact).  Koestler's work is very complete, although he does seem to imply that Kammerer's work needs to be looked at once again.

An excellent summary can be found in The People's Almanac #2 by David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace (pages 826-828, 1978, William Morrow and Company).  Most libraries have this book in their reference sections.

The following articles can be found in the journal Nature:

  • Kammerer's Alytes by Dr. G.K. Noble (August 7, 1926, pages 209-211).  This is the article that accused Kammerer of fraud.
  • Kammerer's Alytes (letter) by E.W. MacBride (August 21, 1926, page 264).
  • Kammerer's Alytes (letter) by Dr. G.K. Noble (October 9, 1926, p. 118).
  • Prof. Paul Kammerer (death announcement) by Hans Przibram (October 16, 1926, page 555).
  • Dr. Paul Kammerer (obituary, October 30, 1926, pages 635-36).
  • Kammerer's Alytes (letter) by E.W. MacBride (November 6, 1926, page 661).
  • The Nuptial Pad of Kammerer's Water-bred Alytes (short letter) by Walter C. Kiplinger (April 30, 1927, page 635).
  • Letter by Hans Przibram (April 30, 1927, pages 635-36).
  • The Nuptial Pad of Kammerer's Water-bred Alytes (short letter) by E.W. MacBride (May 14, 1927, page 707).
  • Variety and Environment in Lizards by E.W. MacBride (July 16, 1927, pages 71-74).
The following articles can be found in The New York Times:
  • Scientist Tells of Success Where Darwin Met Failure (June 3, 1923, Section VIII, page 2, column 1).
  • Famous European Biologist Visits Us (November 25, 1923, Section II, page 7, column 3).
  • Biologist to Tell How Species Alter (November 28, 1923, page 5, column 2).
  • His "If" is Truly Enormous (editorial, November 29, 1923, page 20, column 5).
  • Biologist Predicts Critics' Conversion (December 2, 1923, Section 2, page 7, column 5).
  • Kammerer Gives Proof of Theories (December 20, 1923, page 2, column 4).
  • Would Direct Evolution (December 2, 1923, Section IX, page 4, column 1).
  • Glands Used to Aid Deficient Children: Americans have Not Accepted Kammerer's Findings on the Passing of Traits (January 2, 1924, page 19, column 1).
  • Dr. Kammerer Replies (January 3, 1924, page 2, column 4).
  • Kammerer Kills Self With Gun Near Vienna (September 25, 1926, page 17, column 2).
  • Topics of the Times (editorial, September 27, 1926, page 20, column 5).
  • Dr. Noble Shocked by Kammerer Report: Explains Article Charging Scientific Fraud Alleged to Have Led to Austrian's Suicide (October 10, 1926, page 19, column 3).
  • In 2 Koestler Books, a Scientific Challenge (February 11, 1972, page 22, column 3).

How one toad destroyed one man's entire career.

Way back in the 1920's, Paul Kammerer was the most famous biologist in the world.  He was hailed by The New York Times as the next Darwin.  Yet, few people today have ever heard of him.

Kammerer's disappearing act is actually one of science's great unsolved mysteries.  Yes, a case that not even Lieutenant Columbo could solve. 

So, let's take a look at the evidence:

Paul Kammerer was born in Vienna on August 17, 1880. When he reached adulthood, he enrolled in the Vienna Academy to study music.  The piano was his instrument of choice.  Yet, somehow, he ended up graduating from the university with a degree in biology. 

Almost all of Kammerer's experiments involved forcing various amphibians to breed in environments that were radically different from their native habitat.

In his first series of experiments, he dealt with two different types of salamanders.  The first, the black Salamandra atra, lived in the Alps and gave birth on land to two large, fully formed babies.  The second, the spotted Salamandra maculosa, inhabited the lowlands and gave birth to ten to fifty larvae in water.  These larvae had tadpole attributes and would eventually metamorphose into salamanders. 

Kammerer forced each salamander to live and breed in opposing environments.  The spotted valley salamander, raised in the cold and dry Alpine environment, eventually gave birth to two fully developed salamanders (there were several abortive litters of tadpoles prior to this success).  The black Alpine salamander, raised in the hot and moist lowland climate, eventually gave birth to tadpoles in water.  With each litter, the Alpine salamander gave birth to a greater number of tadpoles.

The next step was to take these offspring, born under abnormal conditions, and raise them to adulthood.  Kammerer then attempted to breed them and found that they all showed (to varying degrees) the same reversal of reproductive method as the parents.

I know what you're thinking.  That's nice, but it's no big, fat, hairy deal.

Well, it was a big deal to Kammerer and many other members of the science community.  Kammerer claimed that these experiments demonstrated Lamarkian inheritance.

Lamarkian what?

Lamarkian inheritance.  This is the idea that what one acquires during one's lifetime is passed on to that person's offspring.  If you play guitar all day long, then your children will have nimble fingers.  If you lift heavy weights all of the time, then your offspring will have larger muscles.  Each generation builds upon the past and continues to improve.  Sounds a bit bizarre, but just remember that at one time you could be killed for suggesting that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Are you still pondering that thought that this is no big, fat, hairy deal?  Well, just think of the ultimate consequence:  If Lamarkian inheritance can be proven, then we can easily develop a race of super human beings.

Keep reading...

In his next series of experiments, which took place over an eleven year period, Kammerer raised the spotted Salamandra maculosa on different colored soils.  Since this species has random yellow spots on a black body, Kammerer decided to try raising these little critters on black and yellow soils.  With each successive generation, the newts raised on black soil gradually lost the yellow spots.  Those that were raised on the yellow soil gained larger and larger yellow spots.  Again, this suggested that what was learned by the parents was somehow passed on to the children.

In another experiment, Kammerer experimented with the cave-dwelling newt Proteus.  Proteus is totally blind and only has rudimentary eyes that are buried deep beneath the skin.  He found that exposing the blind newts to ordinary light only produced a black pigment over the eye and sight never developed.  Yet, when Proteus was raised under red light, Kammerer was able to produce specimens with large, perfectly developed eyes. 

Okay.  I can hear you loud and clear over here!  You're probably saying something like "Enough of these boring details.  Where is this great unsolved mystery?"

Well, it all started with Kammerer's most famous experiment.  It's one that brought him worldwide fame.  Sadly, it would also be responsible for his downfall and near obliteration from scientific literature.

As you can imagine, Kammerer was studying yet another amphibian, the midwife toad, Alytes obstetricians.  It is called the midwife toad because when mating occurs, the male carries the fertilized eggs around his hind legs until they hatch. Unlike most other toads and frogs that mate in water, the midwife toad breeds on dry land.

You can see where this is going...

Kammerer decided to force the midwife toad to copulate in water.  He was able to breed six generations of the toad until the lineage died out.

Even more surprising was that the midwife toad had developed nuptial pads.  Nuptial pads are black calluses containing very minute spikes that develop on the male during mating season.  This allows the male to hold on tight while breeding takes place in the slippery water.  Since the midwife toad breeds on dry land, it does not need or possess these pads. 

With each generation, the nuptial pads became more prevalent.  Kammerer suggested that, once again, this provided evidence that inheritance of acquired characteristics had taken place. 

Almost instantly Kammerer found himself in the middle of a worldwide controversy.  Many scientists sided with him, while others thought that his findings were ludicrous. 

At the same time, Kammerer found himself in a bind.  World War I had devastated his Austrian homeland and the onset of the great depression had left him very poor.  He was forced to abandon his research and preserved his last few specimens in jars of alcohol.

As a result of the lack of funding, Kammerer was forced to step down from his university position and embark on the profitable lecture circuit.  One of his stops was at Cambridge in England in 1923.  He brought with him his last remaining specimen of the midwife toad (the rest were lost during the war) - a fifth generation male.   A large number of scientists attending the conference examined this specimen.  The nuptial pad was clearly visible (the other had been removed to prepare biological sections), and no one questioned its authenticity.

So far, so good.

Kammerer continued to tour the United States in an effort to earn money.  He was a sensation.  Newspapers exaggerated his claims, and he created ever increasing sensation.

That was until August 7, 1926.  On this date, an article appeared in the British journal Nature.  The author, Dr. G. K. Noble, Curator of Reptiles at the American Museum of Natural History, claimed that the nuptial pads on the midwife frog were faked.  They were, with almost complete certainty, India ink!  The nuptial spines could not be located, either.

Shortly thereafter, on September 23, 1926, Kammerer took a walk in the Theresien hills of Austria and chose to end it all.  He put a bullet through his head. 

Kammerer's suicide convinced researchers that he had staged a big hoax on the scientific community.  Within a year after his death, his name had virtually disappeared from the scientific world.  So did the idea of inheriting acquired characteristics.  A lifetime of work was quickly dismissed as a complete forgery. 

But was it?

Let's look at the evidence:

First, the apparent forgery was not the only reason that he committed suicide. He apparently was very depressed before the controversy started.  For example,

  • Kammerer was in deep financial trouble at the time.  He was forced to accept a position offered to him by Moscow University.
  • He was constantly harassed by other researchers who were trying to discredit and prove that his theories were wrong.
  • The world press had sensationalized and exaggerated his claims.  It was clearly not the type of notoriety he desired.
  • He had been involved in a love affair at the time (he had many).  The woman apparently told him just prior to his death that she would not follow him to Moscow.
  • His many years of research were lost in the war.  He had no desire to start again after being accused of tampering with his toad specimen.
  • Kammerer claimed in his suicide notes that he knew nothing of the forgery, but he suspected who had done it.
Scientists had examined the toad specimen just three years prior at Cambridge and no one had questioned its authenticity (they only questioned Kammerer's theories), even after handling and microscopically examining the toad in question.  Even if the darkened pads were actually injected ink, many claimed to have clearly seen the spines.

Also, Kammerer had resigned from his position at the institute several years prior to the final examination and apparently did not have ready access to the preserved toad.  Yet, the ink appeared to have been injected just several days prior to this crucial examination.

Some have suggested that the ink was injected after its examination at Cambridge to preserve a rapidly decaying specimen.  Or, the ink may have been  injected to make the nuptial pads more readily visible.  And, even quite possibly, the ink was injected with the sole purpose as to discredit Kammerer (if true, it worked very well).

Of course, photographs of the suspected midwife toad still exist and the spines on the supposed nuptial pads are clearly visible.  Just take a look at the picture on the right - the nuptial spines can clearly be seen on the bottom of the far right finger (click on it to enlarge).  Some have suggested, including Noble in his 1926 article, that Kammerer simply used the nuptial pads of a similar frog, such as Bombinator maxima.  Others have argued that this substitution was impossible, as too many people were involved in the preparation of the photographic plates.  Also, there was no record that the University had ever had a single specimen of Bombinator.

So there you have it.  This controversy over one toad cost a man his reputation and, ultimately, his life.  Were Kammerer's experiments legitimate?  Or were they a fraud?  Was Kammerer framed?  We will never know.

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