Paul Kammerer


Paul Kammerer : biography

17 August 1880 – 23 September 1926


The biologist Ernest MacBride supported the experiments of Kammerer and claimed they were "perfectly sound" but would have to be repeated if they were to be accepted by other scientists.Ernest MacBride. (1929). Evolution. J. Cape & H. Smith. p. 38 Interest in Kammerer revived in 1971 with the publication of Arthur Koestler’s book, The Case of the Midwife Toad. Koestler surmised that Kammerer’s experiments on the midwife toad may have been tampered with by a Nazi sympathizer at the University of Vienna. Certainly, as Koestler writes, "the Hakenkreuzler, the swastika-wearers, as the Austrian Nazis of the early days were called, were growing in power. One center of ferment was the University of Vienna where, on the traditional Saturday morning student parades, bloody battles were fought. Kammerer was known by his public lectures and newspaper articles as an ardent pacifist and Socialist; it was also known that he was going to build an institute in Soviet Russia. "An act of sabotage in the laboratory would have been…in keeping with the climate of those days."

As a consequence of Noble’s refutation (see above), interest in Lamarckian inheritance diminished except in the Soviet Union where it was championed by Lysenko. The contemporary view in biology remained that acquired characteristics cannot be inherited and that every case documented by Kammerer falls in the broad category of phenotypic plasticity.

Historian of biology Sander Gliboff, Ivan Slade Prize winner (British Society for the History of Science) and Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Indiana University, has commented that, though Kammerer’s conclusions proved false, his evidence was probably genuine and that he did not simply argue for Lamarckism and against Darwinism as those theories are now understood. Rather, if we look beyond the scandal, the story shows us much about the competing theories of biological and cultural evolution and the range of new ideas about heredity and variation in early 20th-century biology and the changes in experimental approach that have occurred since that time.

In 2009, developmental biologist Alexander Vargas, Professor in the Department of Biology, University of Chile, suggested that the inheritance of acquired traits (Lamarckian inheritance) that Kammerer reported to observe in his toad experiments could be authentic, and explainable by results from the emerging field of epigenetics.Vargas AO (2009) Did Paul Kammerer discover epigenetic inheritance? A modern look at the controversial midwife toad experiments, J Exp Zool B Mol Dev Evol, 312(7):667-78. doi: 10.1002/jez.b.21319 In Vargas’ view, Kammerer could actually be considered the discoverer of non-Mendelian, epigenetic inheritance, wherein chemical modifications to parental DNA (e.g., through DNA methylation) are passed on to subsequent generations. Furthermore, In Vargas’ view, the parent-of-origin effect poorly understood at the time of Kammerer’s work might be explained retrospectively, in relation to similar effects seen in other organisms. Professor Gliboff of Indiana University (see above) has subsequently argued that Vargas "constructed his model without first reading Kammerer’s original articles", and that Vargas is "seriously misinformed about what Kammerer did and what the results even were", such that Vargas’ "model… cannot explain the results… originally reported…". Gliboff goes on to strongly challenge Kammerer’s being given credit for discovery of parent-of-origin effects, and to state that "Vargas’ historical inferences about the Kammerer affair… [and] negative reactions of geneticists… are unsupported and do not stand up to scrutiny." Gliboff, Sander AO (2009) Did Paul Kammerer discover epigenetic inheritance? No and why not., J Exp Zool B Mol Dev Evol, 314(8):616-24. doi: 10.1002/jez.b.21374 Hence, the reinterpretation of Kammerer’s work in light of epigenetic discoveries remains controversial.