The Toad Kisser and the Bear’s Lair

The Toad Kisser and the Bear’s Lair. The Case of Paul Kammerer’s Midwife Toad Revisited

Klaus Taschwer

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Paul Kammerer, the "toad kisser." Was he responsible for the manipulation of the midwife toad?

In summer 1926 one of the bigger scientific scandals in the first half of the last century broke. US zoologist G. Kinsley Noble claimed in an article published by the British journal “Nature” that the last remaining specimen of Paul Kammerer‘s midwife toad had been manipulated. This 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.

Six weeks after Noble’s revelation “Krötenküsser” Kammerer shot himself in the Austrian mountains. Another six weeks after Kammerer’s suicide, Anatoli Lunacharsky, the first Soviet people’s commissar of enlightenment responsible for culture, education, and science completed a drama in seven acts that portrayed Kammerer as the victim of a reactionary conspiration. Even bacteriologist and historian of science Ludwik Fleck was not convinced that Kammerer had manipulated the specimen. In “The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact” (1935), Fleck wrote in a footnote: “I do not believe there was a simple case of mala fide on the part of Kammerer. He was an original and diligent research worker.”

Almost 90 years later, we still don’t know why Kammerer committed suicide and whether he had perpetrated the fraud or someone else. These questions are far from being trivial, because both Kammerer’s suicide (interpreted as a confession of his guilt) and the highly polemical German-Soviet movie “Salamandra” (based on Lunacharsky’s drama and shot in Germany in 1928) were the final blows to neo-Lamarckian approaches in Western biology for more than 50 years. Nevertheless, recent discoveries seem to confirm that epigenetic mechanisms for Lamarckian inheritance (of acquired characteristics) might be plausible.

The best account of “the case of the midwife toad” is still Arthur Koestler’s homonymous book, which defends “toad-kisser” Kammerer—without naming a suspect nor a clear motive for the manipulations. By reconstructing Paul Kammerer’s biography, the Viennese academic milieu after World War I and the ideologization of biology in the 1920s Klaus Taschwer hoped to find clues that could help to solve the case. As a matter of fact, 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, including Fritz Lenz William Bateson and Thomas H. Morgan.

However, there was also an anti-Semitic side to the attacks on Kammerer, who was said to be (half-)Jewish 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 18 professors at Vienna University operating under the code-name “bear’s lair.”  Taschwer's project looked to show that one 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 for which he had been working.