Paul Kammerer and the Midwife Toad
We tend to think that Charles Darwin was single-handedly responsible for developing the theory of evolution but he was not working in a vacuum. An important and controversial contribution was made by the French naturalist, Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), who posited a theory that acquired characteristics were passed down through the generations. He thought that giraffes originally had short necks and legs but, in order to get to the succulent upper leaves, had to develop the long legs and necks they have today. Lamarck though that if a parent had a limp, their child would also inherit one.
Lamarckism fell out of fashion but the Austrian scientist, Paul Kammerer (1880-1926), spent part of his career trying to establish whether there was anything in it. He chose to concentrate on the Midwife Toad which, unlike most toads, does not mate in water and so lacks the black, scaly bumps on their back feet, known as nuptial pads, which allows other male toads to hang on to their partners as they mate. If he forced Midwife Toads to mate underwater, he wondered, would they too grow those bumps? If they did, Lamarck might have been on to something.
After getting his toads to mate underwater, Kammerer discovered, after a few generations, that the males were beginning to develop black nuptial pads, which were then inherited by their offspring. If his findings stacked up, there may have been something in Lemarckism after all. In 1923 and 1924 Kammerer travelled extensively across the United States and Britain, giving lectures and writing about his experiments. In 1924, he published The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics, claiming that his experiments and results showed that Lemarck was right.
Kammerer split the scientific community. His findings were enthusiastically embraced by Soviet Russia, the theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics fitting into the prevailing Marxist philosophy, so much so that Kammerer was appointed as director of a laboratory in Moscow’s Communist Academy in 1926. Other scientists, though, were not so sure.
In 1926 an American scientist, Gladwyn K Noble, curator of Reptiles at the Museum of Natural History in New York, travelled over to Vienna to see for himself. By this time Kammerer was in Moscow and so a colleague showed him the one preserved toad that was left from the experiments and photographs taken while the research was ongoing. Noble claimed that the specimen was a fake, the nuptial pads being nothing more than swellings caused by the injection of black Indian ink.
Noble published a letter in the journal, Nature, on August 7 1926, claiming that Kammerer had faked the results of his experiments. In a letter to the Soviet Academy of Science written in September 1926, Kammerer admitted the hoax, but claimed that he was not responsible for faking the exhibit Noble had seen and had no idea who had done it or why. With his academic and professional career ruined, Kammerer’s body was found, on September 23, 1926, at the top of an Austrian mountain in Puchberg am Schneeberg with a gun shot wound to his head and a pistol by his side.
Kammerer’s case has become a notorious example of academic hoaxing but more recent developments in genetic research suggest that he might not be the villain he has been made out to be. In 1942 scientists began to understand a phenomenon called epigenetics whereby circumstances or the environment can make changes to the way gene information expresses itself without changing the genetic code itself. Those changes can be passed on to offspring.
A famous example of epigenetics in practice was to be seen during the famine that hit occupied Netherlands in the winter of 1944/5. Malnourished, pregnant women gave birth to children with a higher incidence of mental problems and a tendency to become obese than normal. Some of these traits were passed on to the women’s grandchildren. And a midwife toad has been found in the wild with nuptial pads.
Perhaps the remaining specimen had been faked but the results of Kammerer’s experiments were as he portrayed them. If so, he will have the last laugh.
If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone