An unusual testimony about Kammerer's scientific attitudes came from Alma
Mahler. In 1911 and 1912, just after the death of Mahler, Alma worked
briefly as an unpaid laboratory assistant to Kammerer, and described this experience in her autobiography, „And the Bridge is Love“:
"To this end I was to teach them (praying mantids) a habit a futile
endeavor, since you could not teach the little beasts a thing. I was to feed
them at the darkened bottom of their cage, but they preferred to eat high in
the sunlight and firmly refused to change this sensible attitude for
Kammerer's sake. I kept records, very exact records. That, too, annoyed
Kammerer. Slightly less exact records with positive results would have
pleased him more."
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.
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 he ended up graduating from the university
with a degree in biology.
The biologist Paul Kammerer
The last specimen of the midwife toad
with the famous rutting weals
Almost all of Kammerer's experiments involved forcing various amphibians to
breed in environments that were radically different from their native
habitat. 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.
Kammerer was studying another amphibian, the midwife toad, Alytes
obstetricians. Unlike most other toads and frogs that mate in water, the
midwife toad breeds on dry land. 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. World War I devastated Austria and the onset of the
great depression had left Kammerer very poor. He was forced to abandon his
research and preserved his last few specimens in jars of alcohol.
Kammerer was forced to 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.
Kammerer continued to tour the United States. 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
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. Photographs of the suspected midwife toad still exist
and the spines on the supposed nuptial pads are clearly visible. 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.
This controversy over one toad cost Kammerer his reputation and, ultimately,
his life. Were Kammerer's experiments legitimate? Or were they a fraud? Was
Kammerer framed? Or did a helping hand - maybe a woman - try to help him...?
We will never know.