The Case of the Midwife Toad


by Phoebe Adams

by Arthur Koestler. Random House, $5.95. Mr. Koestler has given a mystery-story title to what is, in fact, a bit of a mystery. Paul Kammerer (1880-1926) was an Austrian biologist whose experiments with toads and salamanders indicated that acquired characteristics may be inherited. This Lamarckian suggestion infuriated the dominant Darwinians. After years of academic controversy and public excitement, Kammerer’s prize specimen—the midwife toad— was proved fraudulent. There was a roaring scandal and Kammerer shot himself. Mr. Koestler’s reconstruction of the affair is, however, no simple tale of villainy detected. There had been some very odd doings all along the line in regard to that toad; it had passed competent scrutiny on a number of previous occasions; presumably Kammerer, who incidentally had never claimed that the midwife toad proved anything about acquired characteristics, was framed. Although the puzzle remains unsolved, it makes a fascinating tale, for the biological technicalities are carefully explained to the nonscientific reader, and the bloodless wars for precedence among the biological fraternity are as sly and savage as a Borgia feud.