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Gregor Mendel: A Private Scientist

Gregor Mendel.
Gregor Mendel's work in pea led to our understanding of the foundational principles of inheritance.

The Father of Genetics. Like many great artists, the work of Gregor Mendel was not appreciated until after his death. He is now called the "Father of Genetics," but he was remembered as a gentle man who loved flowers and kept extensive records of weather and stars when he died. He was born on July 22, 1822, to a poor farming family who lived in a village in Northern Moravia, which is now part of the Czech Republic. His family valued education but had little resources to send him to school, so he struggled to pay for his education.

Mendel becomes a monk. His professor recommended Mendel to the Augustinian monks in Brunn (now Brno), who valued science, research, and education. His professor thought he would be a good candidate because of his talent in physics and mathematics. Even though Mendel had not planned to be a monk, he was admitted to the order on September 7, 1843.

Mendel was then able to continue his education at the University of Vienna where he found a talent for teaching, though interestingly he was twice unable to pass the teaching certificate examination. He was quiet and shy; he may have found the oral part of the examination too nerve-wracking. He was at home in the monastery's botanical garden where he spent many hours a day breeding fuchsias and pea plants.

Keeping the peas. Mendel did not set out to conduct the first well-controlled and brilliantly-designed experiments in genetics. His goal was to create hybrid pea plants and observe the outcome. His observations led to more experiments, which led to unusually prescient conclusions. By simply counting peas and keeping meticulous notes, Mendel established the principles of inheritance, coined the terms dominant and recessive, and was the first to use statistical methods to analyze and predict hereditary information. For eight years, Mendel cultivated thousands of pea plants and used a paintbrush to painstakingly transfer pollen from one plant to another to make his crosses (all the while still attending to his duties as a monk and a teacher).

Mendel's brilliance is unrecognized. On February 8, 1865, Mendel presented his work to the Brunn Society for Natural Science. His paper, "Experiments on Plant Hybridization," was published the next year. While his work was appreciated for its thoroughness, no one seemed to grasp its importance. The work was simply too ahead of its time, too contrary to popular beliefs about heredity. "My time will come," Mendel once said, but it was over 30 years before his work was appreciated.

After the peas. In the years following the publication of his work, Mendel continued his interest in science: he attempted cross-breeding experiments with hawkweed and bees and became a meticulous record keeper of meteorological and astronomical data. He was elected abbot of his parish in 1868 and became a political activist in his later years, during which time he protested the taxation of his parish. At age 61, he died of kidney failure.
This page appears in the eBook Essentials of Genetics, Unit 3.3

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