Teleology as a mistress

Okay, this is bugging me so I’m going to crowdsource it. Who first wrote this:

Teleology is a mistress without whom no biologist can live, but with whom none wishes to be seen in public?

There are many versions of this, ascribed variously to J. B. S. Haldane, Frits Went, but I’m fairly sure it was Ernst von Brücke. One source cites Asa Gray as the origin of the quote. Another has the following:

Once he has grasped this, he will no longer have to look at teleology as a lady without whom he cannot live but with whom he would not appear in public. E. von Brücke

Others just give the quote, in various versions. Any ideas? I cannot find a source, and I even went to online versions of his works in German.

5 thoughts on “Teleology as a mistress

  1. Two books of quotations (The Oxford Dictionary of Medical Quotations and Alma E. Cavazos-Gaither’s Naturally Speaking) ascribe it–as “Teleology is a lady without whom no biologist can live. Yet he is ashamed to show himself with her in public”–to von Brücke, but both cite English-language sources from the 1950s, rather than anything written by von Brücke himself.


    1. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has this citation:

      Brücke, Ernst Wilhelm von 1819–92 German physiologist

      1. Teleology is a lady without whom no biologist can live. Yet he is ashamed to show himself with her in public.

      Quoted in H.A. Krebs, ‘Excursion into the Borderland of Biochemistry and Philosophy’ , Bulletin of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, 1954, 95, pp.45.

      I have seen it or something like it in various places, as the earliest direct quote, but I cannot get access to a copy of the Bulletin, and the JH site only goes to 1949.

      Can any reader find it?


  2. Your first source cites Gray as quoting someone, possibly von Brücke. The quotation is pieced together; the second half is from a letter, but I can’t find the first half, containing the quotation, in his letters.


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