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August 7: Paul Kammerer’s Midwife Toad

Lawrence Bush
August 6, 2016

American zoologist G. Kingsley Noble (not Jewish) debunked the researches of Viennese scientist Paul Kammerer, which supported the Lamarckian theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, in Nature magazine on this date in 1926. Kammerer's work with midwife toads, in which he claimed to have induced the development of nuptial pads that were then inherited by offspring, dated back to 1918; Noble, a herpetologist at the American Museum of Natural History, determined that the reported nuptial pads had been simulated with injected Indian ink. "This," writes Klaus Taschwer of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, "was the dramatic finale of a fierce international debate, which included 34 articles and letters that appeared in Nature between 1919 and 1926 discussing Paul Kammerer’s experiments." Kammerer committed suicide later in 1926, which was widely interpreted as a confession of guilt, although he had denied cheating in his experiments. According to Taschwer, "Kammerer was not only a highly visible public scientist, he also criticized negative eugenics and the rigid concepts of race and gender that were propagated by most of the prominent geneticists in Germany, Great Britain, and the USA at the time. Therefore, Kammerer had quite a few 'bio-political' enemies . . . But there was also an anti-Semitic side to the attacks on Kammerer, who was said to be (half-)Jewish [his mother had Jewish origins] and working for a 'Jewish' research institute for experimental biology in Vienna. New archival findings indicate that there was a secret anti-Semitic group of eighteen professors at Vienna University operating under the code-name 'bear’s lair.' ... [O]ne of the members of this conspiratory network might have played a key role in the case of the midwife toad -– successfully discrediting not only the work of Paul Kammerer, but of the whole institute he had been working with."

"[E]pigenetic mechanisms are now known to influence some of the features that became altered in Kammerer's toads, such as adult body size and egg size. . . .Rather than committing fraud . . . it seems that Kammerer had the misfortune of stumbling upon non-Mendelian inheritance at a time in which Mendelian genetics itself was just becoming well accepted." -- Sarah Zielinski, Smithsonian.com

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.