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The legend of an invisible monk

Ignored during the 19th century, Gregor Mendel’s experiments with pea plants gave birth to genetics

Monastery in the early 1860s: Mendel contemplates a flower and Napp, in front of him, wears a crucifix

Wellcome images / Wikimedia Commons Monastery in the early 1860s: Mendel contemplates a flower and Napp, in front of him, wears a crucifixWellcome images / Wikimedia Commons

One hundred and fifty years ago, in 1866, the study by Gregor Johann Mendel that came to be known as the basis for genetics was published:  “Experiments on plant hybridization.”  A year earlier, in February and March of 1865, this monk from Moravia (at that time a part of Austria, and today part of the Czech Republic) presented his work at two meetings of the Natural History Society of Brünn, a city today known as Brno.  His conclusions were received with a certain indifference that no way suggested the recognition that would come later.

Mendel had spent seven years cultivating nearly 30,000 pea plants, whose reproductive parts were carefully dissected in order to obtain the controlled crossbreeding that would allow him to understand how their simplest traits, such as flower color and seed shape were transmitted from one generation to the next.  The experiments enabled him to infer the existence of recessive and dominant factors that function according to two laws of heredity.  The Law of Segregation holds that each individual receives two factors (now called genes) from his parents, but transmits only one to each of his descendants.  The Law of Independent Assortment, in turn, holds that each trait is inherited independent of any other.  This theory explains why parental traits that disappeared in descendants could reappear in the next  generation.  The work was carried out in a greenhouse at the Augustinian St. Thomas Abbey in Brno, where Mendel was a monk due less to religious vocation than to scientific drive.

Although the son of farmers, young Mendel had no inclination for farm work. But with no financial resources, opportunities to study were slim and limited to the religious realm.  The director of the Monastery that took him in, Abbott Cyril Napp, had always intended to establish a center of excellence in knowledge and encouraged scientific investigation among his monks.  There, Mendel was given the name Gregor and found the time and space to dedicate himself to the seemingly unassuming work, which for him, was anything but modest.

Portuguese stamps released in 2015...

Atelier Design &etc / Elizabete Fonseca / CTT-Portuguese Postal Service Portuguese stamps released in 2015…Atelier Design &etc / Elizabete Fonseca / CTT-Portuguese Postal Service

According to the book The Monk in the Garden, by Robin Marantz Henig (published by Rocco, 2001), Mendel longed for glory as foreshadowed in a poem he wrote as a teenager in tribute to Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press: “May the might of destiny grant me / The supreme ecstasy of earthly joy,/That of seeing, when I arise from the tomb,/ My art thriving peacefully/ Among those who are to come after me.”

Fame did come later, when he was already buried.  A recurring question is why Mendel’s discoveries were ignored.  Physicist and historian João José Caluzi, from the Bauru Campus of São Paulo State University (Unesp), addressed the concept of prematurity in scientific discovery with his master’s student, Caroline Batisteti, in a paper published in 2010 in the journal Filosofia e História da Biologia.  Caluzi explains that Mendel is an example of prematurity in scientific discovery because his conclusions were not connected to the thinking of the time.  But the researcher is not convinced that it is possible to look at the past in isolation.  “The notion of prematurity is very much molded by what interests us right now,” he says.

For Caluzi, other factors contributed to why Mendel had not been recognized:  he was a monk focused on growing peas who presented his results at talks given at a small scientific society, and published them in the annals of the same society that had limited distribution.  It is also likely that he was ahead of his time.  “Statistics were not yet used in biology,” explains the Unesp professor.  The community interested in the hybridization of plants at that time found it hard to understand the mathematics used to analyze the results of the crossbreeding of pea plants.  Moreover, another topic was dominating the news of the day at that time – Charles Darwin had published his Origin of Species just a few years earlier, in 1859.

...commemorate the ephemeral nature of Mendel’s discovery

Atelier Design &etc / Elizabete Fonseca / CTT-Portuguese Postal Service …commemorate the ephemeral nature of Mendel’s discoveryAtelier Design &etc / Elizabete Fonseca / CTT-Portuguese Postal Service

Darwin was one of the people to whom Mendel sent his publication, which apparently went unread.  After Darwin’s death, a copy of the book was found in the Brit’s library, with the pages still sealed by the printer.

Mendel died in 1884 at the age of 63, without finding anyone who paid his work any great attention.  It was only at the turn of the 20th century that European botanists Hugo de Vries, Carl Correns and Erich Tschermak-Seysenegg got approximately the same results and discovered the study published more than three decades earlier.  Zoologist William Bateson took it upon himself to disseminate the study and give credit to its author, providing for the publication of an English version of the text in 1901 in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society.  It was then that genetics was indeed born.