Paul Kammerer Papers, 1910-1972

Mss.B.K128

Date: 1910-1972 | Size: 0.25 Linear feet

Abstract

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. His major research efforts, straddling the First World War, centered on experiments performed on salamanders and on the midwife toad, and seemed to provide empirical support for a Lamarckian mechanism in evolution. He also developed a monistic "law of seriality," in which he attempted to explain coincidence as the product of a higher order natural law. A Socialist, Kammerer was widely regarded as a brilliant scientist, but for scientific, personal, and political reasons, he engendered as much antagonism as support, preventing him from ever obtaining a regular university appointment. His career ended tragically in allegations of fraud, followed by his suicide.

The Kammerer Papers is comprised of photocopies of materials that document the brief, but controversial career of a non-Darwinian evolutionary biologist. The bulk of the collection consists of photocopies of articles by Kammerer, often from obscure newspapers or periodicals, along with a small number of letters to his friend Hugo Iltis, the geneticist and biographer of Mendel. Nearly all of these pertain to the Kammerer's experiments with amphibians to test Lamarckian inheritance or to his other biological theories. The collection also includes a small number of items dating from after Kammerer's death, but relating to his life and work, including two letters from his former supervisor Hans Przibram, a letter from Hugh Iltis (Hugo's son) to Arthur Koestler and the reply, and a brief biographical reminiscence of Kammerer written by Hugo Iltis.

Background note

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.

Scope and content

The Kammerer Papers is comprised of photocopies of materials that document the brief, but controversial career of the non-Darwinian evolutionary biologist, Paul Kammerer. The bulk of the collection consists of photocopies of articles written by Kammerer, often from obscure newspapers or periodicals, along with a small number of letters from Kammerer to his friend Hugo Iltis, the geneticist and biographer of Mendel. Nearly all of these pertain to the Kammerer's experiments with amphibians to test Lamarckian inheritance or to his other biological theories. The collection also includes a small number of items dating from after Kammerer's death relating to Kammerer's life and work, including two letters from his former supervisor Hans Przibram, a letter from Hugh Iltis (Hugo's son) to Arthur Koestler and the reply, and a brief biographical reminiscence of Kammerer written by Hugo Iltis.

With the exception of some of the material dating from after Kammerer's death, the collection is written exclusively in German. Typescripts of Kammerer's letters have been included.

Collection Information

Provenance

Gift of Hugh H. Iltis, Sept. 20, 1973 (accn. no. 1973-2035ms).

Preferred citation

Cite as: Paul Kammerer Papers, American Philosophical Society.

Processing information

Recatalogued by rsc, 2004.

Other finding aids

The Kammerer Papers are discussed in Bentley Glass' Guide to Genetics Collections at the APS.

Related material

Kammerer appears as a correspondent in the Davenport (B D27) and Jennings (B J44) Papers at the APS.

Bibliography

The APS owns copies of two of Kammerer's books:

Kammerer, Paul, Adaptation and Inheritance in the Light of Modern Experimental Investigation (Washington, 1913). Call no.: 506.73 Sm6an 1912

Kammerer, Paul, The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics [transl. of Die Streitfrage der Vererbung erworbener Eigenschaften] (N.Y., 1924, 1984). Call no.: 575.1 R72h.r v.18

Genetics Note

AuthorFormatDate
Dunn, Leslie Clarence -- Hugo Iltis - 1882-1952Manuscripts (2 pages)1953
Iltis, Hugo -- Curriculum VitaeManuscripts (1 page)n.d.
Iltis, Hugo -- List of publicationsManuscripts (3 pages)n.d.
Iltis, Hugo -- Paul KammererManuscripts (1 item)Circa 1922
Iltis, Hugo -- Paul KammererManuscripts (1 item)1951
Kammerer, Paul -- Curriculum VitaeManuscripts (1 item)1910-1915
Kammerer, Paul -- Letters to Hugo IltisCorrespondence (6 items)1910-1920

Indexing Terms


Personal Name(s)

  • Dunn, L. C. (Leslie Clarence), 1893-1974
  • Iltis, Hugh H. (Hugh Hellmut)
  • Iltis, Hugo, 1882-1952
  • Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926
  • Koestler, Arthur, 1905-1983
  • Przibram, Karl, 1878-1973

Subject(s)

  • Adaptation (Biology)
  • Amphibians
  • Evolution (Biology)
  • Genetics -- Austria
  • Heredity
  • Inheritance of acquired characters
  • Lamarckism


Detailed Inventory

Paul Kammerer Papers
1910-19720.25 lin. feetbox 1
Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
to Hugo Iltis
1910 July 6ALS Cy, 2p.box 1

Please note that subject terms refer to all correspondence from Paul Kammerer to Hugo Iltis (6 items total). See below for the rest of the letters.


Subject(s): Genetics -- Amphibians; Lamarck, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet de; Genetics; Evolution

Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
to Hugo Iltis
1910 July 9ALS Cy, 1p.box 1
Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Curriculum vitae
ca.1910-1915ALS Cy, 1p.box 1

Subject(s): Biographical and personal data

Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
to Hugo Iltis
1911 Dec. 28Postcard Cy, 1p.box 1
Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Mendelsche Regeln und Vererbung erworbener Eigenschaften
1911Pr. Ms Cy, 39p.box 1

Article from Verhanglungen des Naturforschenden Vereines in Brünn 49 (1911): 72-110.

Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Gefühl und Verstand
1914 MayPr. Ms Cy, 8p.box 1

Sonderdrücl from Monatsblätter der Deutschen onistenbundes Ortsgruppe Hamburg.

Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Zwei Janhre "Allgemeine Lebenslehre"
1914Pr. Ms Cy, 15p.box 1

Article from Cottage-Lyzeum 1913/1914.

Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Erbliche Anlastung
1916 ca. April 4Pr. Ms Cy, 8p.box 1

Article from Wiener Urania on his experiments with salamanders.

Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
to Hugo Iltis
1919 Sept. 1TLS Cy, 2p.box 1
Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
to Hugo Iltis
1919 Dec. 19TLS Cy, 2p.box 1
Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Lebensbeherrschung: Grundsteinlegung zur organischen Technik
1919Pr. Ms. Cy, 2p.box 1

Published as Monistische Bibliothek 13 (1919).

Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Dunkeltiere im Licht und Lichttiere im Dunkel
1920 Jan. 9Pr. Ms. Cy, 8p.box 1

Published in Naturwissenschaften 13 (1920): 28-35.

Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
to Hugo Iltis
1920 Jan. 17Postcard Cy, 2p.box 1
Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Brief vom Wörtersee
1920 Sept. 14Pr. Ms. Cy, 1p.box 1

Published in Der Abend, p.3.

Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Richard Semon: zur Wiederkehr seines todestages
1920 Dec. 27Pr. Ms. Cy, 2p.box 1

Published in Der Abend, no.294.

Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Entwicklungsmechanik der Seele
1920Pr. Ms. Cy, 2p.box 1

Published in Der Freie Gendanke (Prague), 1, 7 (1920): 3.

Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Hilfreiche Entlastung
1921 Jan. 26Pr. Ms. Cy, 2p.box 1

Published in Der Abend.

Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Zufall
1921 Mar. 16Pr. Ms. Cy, 2p.box 1

Published in Der Abend.

Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Der Kreislauf des Geschehens
1921 July 3Pr. Ms. Cy, 2p.box 1

Published in Berliner Tageblatt.

Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Welt-Widerhall Seele
1921 July 5Pr. Ms. Cy, 2p.box 1

Published in Der Abend.

Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Jungbrunnen der Wissenschaft
ca.1921 July 10Pr. Ms. Cy, 2p.box 1

Published in er Abend?.

Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Über Verjüngung und Verlängerung des persönlishen Lebens
1921Pr. Ms. Cy, pp.7-16 onlybox 1

Published in Stuttgart.

Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Zensur und Wissenschaft
ca.1921Pr. Ms. Cy, 2p.box 1

Published in Der Abend.

Iltis, Hugo.
Paul Kammerer
ca.1922Pr. Ms. Cy, 2p.box 1

Published in unknown source.


Subject(s): Biographical and personal data -- Kammerer, Paul; Publication

Przibram, Hans, 1874-.
to Hugo Iltis
1923 July 23ANS Cy, 1p.box 1

On Lamarckian evolution.

Molish, Hans(?).
Dr. Kammerer und die Wiener Universität
ca.1924Pr. Ms. Cy, 1p.box 1

Published in Neue Freie Presse (Wien).

Notices on Kammerer's death
1926Pr. Ms. Cy, 4p.box 1
Przibram, Hans, 1874-.
to Hugo Iltis
1930 Feb. 9ALS Cy, 3p.box 1

On Lamarckian evolution.

Iltis, Hugo.
Die Abstammung Gregor Mendels, Julius Wiesners und Hans Molischs
ca.1938Pr. Ms. Cy, 5p.box 1

Published in Prager Rundschau 8 (1938): 299-304.

Iltis, Hugo.
Paul Kammerer
1951Pr. Ms. Cy, 4p.box 1

Dictated to Hugh H. Iltis.


Subject(s): Biographical and personal data -- Kammerer, Paul; Unpublished manuscripts, notes, etc.

Dunn, L. C. (Leslie Clarence), 1893-1974.
Hugo Iltis: 1882-1952
1952 Jan. 2Pr. Ms Cy, 2p.box 1

Published in Science 117 (1953): 3-4.


Subject(s): Publication -- Science; Biographical and personal data -- Iltis, Hugo

Iltis, Hugh H. (Hugh Hellmut).
to Arthur Koestler
1972 Aug. 30TLsS Cy, 4p.box 1

Re: Case of the Midwife Toad.

Koestler, Arthur.
to Hugh H. Iltis
1972 Sept. 9TLsS Cy, 2p.box 1

Re: Case of the Midwife Toad.

Bernfeld, Anne.
Ein Wiener Gelehrte
n.d.Pr. Ms Cy, 1p.box 1
Hahn, Arnold.
Verführung durch Experiment
n.d.Pr. Ms Cy, 1p.box 1
Iltis, Hugo.
Curriculum vitae
n.d.TMs, 1p.box 1

Subject(s): Biographical and personal data

Iltis, Hugo.
List of publications
n.d.TMs, 3p.box 1

Subject(s): Bibliographical matters

Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Das biologische Zeitalter: Fortschritte der organischen Technik
n.d.Pr. Ms, 20p.box 1
Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Wilhelm Bülsche zum sechsigsten Geburtstag
n.d.Pr. Ms, 3p.box 1
Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Naturgeschichte des Strassenkämpfe
n.d.Pr. Ms, 4p.box 1
Kammerer, Paul, 1880-1926.
Organischen und soziale Technik
n.d.Pr. Ms, 2p.box 1