Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926

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Paul Kammerer was an Austrian geneticist. He studied adaptation and hereditary characteristics of amphibians. In 1909, he determined the genetic structure of the toad.

From the description of Papers, 1910-1972. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 154298049

The Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer was an outspoken proponent of the theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics (Lamarckism) during the time in which Mendelian theory was becoming deeply entrenched in biology. Though widely regarded as a brilliant scientist, he engendered opposition for both personal and political reasons that prevented him from ever obtaining a regular university appointment, and his career ended tragically in allegations of fraud, followed by his suicide.

Born in Vienna in 1880, Kammerer received his doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1904, and was shortly thereafter appointed as assistant at the University's Biologische Versuchsanstalt, working under Hans Przibram. From that time until his death in 1926, Kammerer engaged in experiments on amphibians in an attempt to test the possibility of Lamarckian inheritance. In his earliest work, he took specimens of two species of salamander with markedly different environmental preferences, switched their habitats, and bred them in the foreign environment. The black-colored viviparous alpine salamander Salamandra alta was bred in a warm, aquatic, lowland environment, and the spotted oviparous lowland species Salamandra maculosa in a cold and dry environment. The results were striking. Kammerer reported that each type acquired the coloration of the other in its new habitat, and the acquired color patterns proved to be heritable. Furthermore, after a period of adjustment, Kammerer reported that S. alta became oviparous and vice-versa for S. maculosa .

Kammerer's next series of experiments were even more provocative. His idea was to test whether a change in environment like the one he induced in his salamander work would produce a similar phenotypic shift in the midwife toad ( Alytes obstetricians ), a terrestrial species which lacks the pigmented "nuptial" thumb pads used by aquatic males to grasp females in mating. He concluded that the answer was yes: the environment could once again be shown to be a stimulus for the development of nuptial pads in the male, and these pads were inherited by male offspring even when returned to their original environment. Although Lamarckism had been widely accepted as an important evolutionary mechanism only a generation before, and although a number of recalcitrant Lamarckians still populated the field, Kammerer's empirical findings had a large impact, though much of it negative. In other work, he was no less controversial. An arch monist, he developed a "law of seriality," in which he attempted to explain coincidences or series of coincidences as manifestations of an underlying universal principle in nature that stands apart from physical causality.

While Kammerer's experiments were, in themselves theoretically challenging and controversial in the face of a solidifying Mendelism, they were made more so because of his political views and personality. A handsome man inclined to vanity and womanizing, Kammerer earned the envy and enmity of many. That he was a staunch Socialist, an atheist, and half Jewish on his mother's side, did little to help him in reactionary circles at the University, and his willingness to write for the popular press earned him the criticism of others who derided him as simply a journalist. His opponents prevented him from ever obtaining a proper university post, citing disapproval of his insistence on published Das Gesetz der Serie before obtaining the approval of the University Senate as reason. He spent most of his latter years as a Privat Dozent -- without pay.

Socialism may also have been one of the key elements behind Kammerer's receptivity to Lamarckian theory. Kammerer wrote that he saw evolution as the great hope that education could offer for the improvement of humanity, and his theories found a particularly appreciative audience among committed Socialists and Communists. The ideological coincidence earned Kammerer an invitation to join the faculty at Moscow University, an offer that the cultured and cosmopolitan native of Vienna did not immediately accept.

As news of his experiments began to spread in 1923, Kammerer left for a lecture tour of England, visiting Cambridge and the Linnaean Society in London, after which he traveled to the United States. As he lectured at universities from Yale to Johns Hopkins, Kammerer created something of a popular sensation, earning extravagant (and sometimes exaggerated) notice in the press for his ideas. In the scientific community, however, opinions ran the gamut from skepticism to denial: on the more positive end, Herbert Spencer Jennings remained open to the possibility of Lamarckian mechanisms, but at Cambridge, William Bateson sought actively to discredit him.

Kammerer's story diverted into tragedy in 1926 when G. Kingsley Noble of the American Museum and Przibram earned a rare invitation to visit Kammerer's laboratory in Vienna and examine his amphibians personally. During this visit, they discovered that the toad's nuptial pads had in fact been injected with India ink in order to produce the black coloration and swelling, and after they went to press with their accusations in the August 7, 1926, issue of Nature, the response was swift. Although Kammerer professed innocence, blaming an antagonistic assistant for the alteration, his reputation was sullied beyond repair. He accepted the position in a still-receptive Moscow, but Kammerer fell into a deep depression, suffering not only from the assaults on his character, but from poor finances and his wife's refusal to accompany him to Russia. He committed suicide en route to Russia. For almost three decades most, however, his work remained current in the Soviet Union, where his theories harmonized with the principles of Trofim Lysenko, head of the Institute of Genetics of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

From the guide to the Paul Kammerer Papers, 1910-1972, 1910-1972, (American Philosophical Society)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Aronson, Lester R. (Lester Ralph), 1911-. Collection on the Kammerer/Noble midwife toad scandal, 1903-1990 (bulk 1923-1975). American Museum of Natural History
referencedIn William B. Provine collection of evolutionary biology reprints, 20th century. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.
creatorOf Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926. Correspondence to Alma Mahler, 1911-1915. University of Pennsylvania Libraries, Van Pelt Library
creatorOf Paul Kammerer Papers, 1910-1972, 1910-1972 American Philosophical Society
creatorOf Koppanyi, T. (Theodore), 1901-. Theodore Koppanyi papers, 1910-1930. New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926. Papers, 1910-1972. American Philosophical Society Library
referencedIn Noble, Gladwyn Kingsley, 1894-1940. Papers, 1919-1940. Campbell University, Wiggins Memorial Library
referencedIn Theodore Koppanyi papers, 1910-1930 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
referencedIn Harrison, Ross G. (Ross Granville), 1870-1959. Ross Granville Harrison papers, 1820-1975 (inclusive), 1889-1959 (bulk). Yale University Library
referencedIn William Bateson: Scientific Correspondence and Papers, 19th - 20th century Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives
referencedIn Harrison, Ross G. (Ross Granville), 1870-1959. Ross Granville Harrison papers, 1820-1975 (inclusive), 1889-1959 (bulk). Yale University Library
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Aronson, Lester R. (Lester Ralph), 1911- person
associatedWith Bateson, William person
associatedWith Bernfeld, Anne person
associatedWith Dunn, L. C., (Leslie Clarence), 1893-1974 person
associatedWith Hahn, Arnold person
associatedWith Harrison, Ross G. (Ross Granville), 1870-1959. person
associatedWith Hugo, Iltis, 1925- , person
associatedWith Iltis, Hugh H. (Hugh Hellmut) person
associatedWith Iltis, Hugo, 1882-1952 person
associatedWith Iltis, Hugo, 1925- . person
associatedWith Koestler, Arthur, 1905- . person
associatedWith Koppanyi, T. (Theodore), 1901- person
associatedWith Molish, Hans(?) person
associatedWith Noble, Gladwyn Kingsley, 1894-1940. person
correspondedWith Provine, William B. person
associatedWith Przibram, Hans, 1874- person
associatedWith Przibram, Karl, 1878-1973 person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Adaptation (Biology)
Evolution (Biology)
Inheritance of acquired characters


Birth 1880-08-17

Death 1926-09-23





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