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Book cover The Case of Paul Kammerer. The Adventurous Life of the Most Controversial Biologist of His Time

Klaus Taschwer Der Fall Paul Kammerer. Das abenteuerliche Leben des umstrittensten Biologen seiner Zeit
[The Case of Paul Kammerer. The Adventurous Life of the Most Controversial Biologist of His Time]

The history of science as crime case

It is unfortunately the case that biographies of natural scientists tend to be dry nonfiction narratives, and it is perfectly obvious that meticulous laboratory work and an exciting—let alone turbulent—private life generally tend to be mutually exclusive. The Case of Paul Kammerer is the exception to the rule, and the science journalist Klaus Taschwer is absolutely correct and not at all exaggerating when he claims that his Kammerer biography tells about "the adventurous life of the most controversial biologist of his time."

Kammerer was born in 1880 and he died by his own hand in 1926. Not only was he the most famous biologist of his time, he was in fact much more than just a biologist. On the level of social life alone, his story unfolds a wide panorama of fin de siècle Vienna. The charismatic Kammerer, who composed music for his own private pleasure, knew Alban Berg, Bruno Walter, and Albert Einstein personally.

Stories of his womanizing were even more spectacular. They included Grete Wiesenthal, who was a famous dancer at the time, the painter Anna Walt, and of course Alma Mahler, who in her memoirs offered a small impression of the particular disposition of this not at all prosaic natural scientist.

"Every day he wrote me the craziest letters," Alma Mahler remembered. "Every other day he would run out of my house threatening to shoot himself—preferably on Gustav Mahler’s grave. He frightened me several times before I got used to these antics. … When he kept writing, I asked his wife to come to see me. I asked her to watch him better, and above all, to hide the gun he had been brandishing constantly, menacing me and himself."

The fact that Paul Kammerer did in fact shoot himself in 1926 draws attention to a scandal that was much more than a personal tragedy, as it had scientific and even political consequences. Kammerer spent his life researching especially reptiles, through which he hoped to prove the Lamarckian-based theory of the heritability of acquired characteristics. Evidence of this assumption was of eminent significance that extended far beyond the edge of the toad pond. Ultimately, Kammerer wanted to show that the character and preconditions of humans are not firmly preprogrammed and a given fact of nature—as assumed in Darwinism, which provided the basis for the then flourishing theory of race—but that they could be shaped and passed down through experience and external influences.

An ardent socialist and pacifist, Kammerer had the idea of countering the fatalism of static models of society with the notion that humankind could improve itself little by little by changing conditions of life—as Kammerer thought he had proven on the midwife toad. He had artificially forced these animals, which normally propagate on land, into water, and the next generation of toads had inherited nuptial pads on the inner side of the fingers, which helped the male toad to grasp on to the female during copulation in water and not slip away. Kammerer interpreted this as proving the heritability of acquired characteristics that had developed in the parent generation through a spontaneous modification.

Klaus Taschwer named his wonderful and vividly narrated biography The Case of Paul Kammerer because it was this decisive toad experiment that became the subject of a fateful criminological epilogue. An article in the scientific journal Nature verified that the supposed nuptial pads on the toads were nothing but a trace of artificially injected ink. Suddenly Kammerer appeared to be a fraud and data forger.

Like Kammerer’s biographer in the 1970s, Arthur Koestler (The Case of the Midwife Toad), Taschwer makes a new effort to rehabilitate Kammerer, and ultimately, he too is not able to clarify the case beyond any doubt. But because Taschwer delves deeper into the archives than Koestler did, he picks up the scent of a breathtaking plot to defame the best-known biologist of his time forever. Taschwer’s reconstruction of this character assassination is so exciting to read, as if a crime novel author with a great imagination had simply invented it all.

Translated by Allison Brown

Book cover The Case of Paul Kammerer. The Adventurous Life of the Most Controversial Biologist of His Time

By Ronald Düker

​Ronald Düker is a cultural scientist and journalist, and he writes for the German weekly Die Zeit and various daily newspapers and magazines. He lives in Berlin.