Gregor Mendel, Augustinian and scientist, was a pioneer whose scientific work was so unprecedented at the time it appeared that it took thirty-four years for the rest of the scientific community to catch up to it.
Johann (Jan) Gregor Mendel was born on 20th July 1822 was born into a farming family at Hyncice, near Brno (now in the Czech Republic), and was one of three children. He joined the Order of Saint Augustine in 1843. While preparing for priesthood, he also studied agriculture and viniculture at the Philosophical Institute of Brno. On 4th August 1847 at the age of twenty-five years Gregor Mendel was ordained a priest.
He continued his studies and in June 1848 received a certificate of completion from the college. In early August he became a parish priest in the collegiate church at Old Brno. After a difficult year, Mendel concluded that was not a success as a parish priest. In spite of his lack of experience at school teaching, he accepted a position at the Gymnasium (secondary school) in Znojmo (Znaim) in 1849. After a year teaching, he completed two years of study of natural science in Vienna. From 1854 Mendel taught physics and science at a state secondary modern school, the Realschule, (non-classical secondary school) in Brno. He was an active member of a range of natural science associations, including the Brno Natural Science Society, the Moravian-Silesian Society for Agricultural Development, and the Society for the Keeping of Bees. The goal of his experiments was the artificial fertilization of ornamental plants in order to obtain new colour varieties.
His friend, J. Tvrdý, a gardener in Brno, was the most successful plant breeder in Europe. In early 1850s Mendel started his experiments in plant crossing. He deduced his theory of inheritance from the crossing peas and demonstrated the meaning of this for enhancement of types. No one knows for sure how many pea plants Mendel grew (28,000 by some accounts), or how many peas he sorted (some estimates go as high as 300,000). By his own count he “carefully studied” more than 10,000 plants (probably closer to 13,000). These studies of numerous peas helped Mendel devise his genetic theories, eventually making him the founder of modern genetic science. The microscope that Mendel used still exists. He used it to observe single-grain pollination. This disproved the claim of Charles Darwin and others that one grain of pollen was not enough to fertilize a plant. Mendel could see pollen magnified 179 times, but he could not see visually heredity worked. In 1868, he became the Abbot of the Augustinian Abbey of Saint Thomas in Brno, which was an appointment until death. After becoming Abbot in 1868, Mendel had little time for science.
He may have been disheartened by the lack of reaction to his scientific paper on his pea experiments, but he knew that his discovery was important. Not long before his death in 1884, he is said to have told a scientific colleague, “My time will come.” Even though Mendel laid aside his work with peas, he also experimented in bee keeping in 1871 on the slopes of the abbey, where the hives, somewhat changed, are found to this day. He operated a meteorological station in the abbey. It was first in 1910 that his works achieved world-wide recognition and fame - almost thirty years after his death. On 6th January 1884, the Augustinian monastery of Saint Thomas in Old Brno announced the death of "Friar Johann Mendel, incumbent of the prelature of the imperial and royal Austrian order of Emperor Franz Josef, meritorious director of the Moravian Mortgage Bank, founder of the Austrian Meterological Association, member of the Royal and Imperial Moravian and Silesian Society for the Furtherance of Agriculture, Natural Sciences and Knowledge of the Country, and of other learned and beneficial societies, etc. etc."
He is buried in an Augustinian tomb in the central cemetery in Brno. The inscription on the tomb is in simple Latin: R. R. D. Gregorius Jo. Mendel, Abbas, ob. d. 6. Jan 1884, R. I. P.
Mendel and the theory of Charles Darwin
Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) conducted cross-breeding experiments on pea plants. His work on genetic mutation was of value to the theory of Charles Darwin, although this was first noticed by other scientists only after both Mendel and Darwin had died. Mendel discovered that various characteristics (height, colour, etc.) appeared in first and second generation plants in accordance with simple mathematical proportions.
But from the point of view of the theory of evolution first developed by Charles Darwin, the other discovery by Mendel - that of genetic mutation - is the most important. This was that, although two parents pass on a variety of characteristics to their offspring, these characteristics cannot go beyond the limit of what was genetically contained within the original genes of the parents. It is a principle of Mendelian genetics that no amount of breeding can produce species with completely new characteristics.
The inheritable characters (called "traits") are stable and constant. Although traits can skip one or more generations and then reappear, when they do reappear they are exactly the same characteristics as they were previously. Darwin believed that evolution came about through continual small differences between individuals, the best of which were preserved by natural selection. The results of Gregor Mendel results confine this possibility within the limits of discrete groups.
This was acknowledged by geneticists, and led to their proposing another mechanism. This relies on the fact that a miniscule proportion of offspring are noticeably different from the parents. These are called mutants. It is these mutants which evolutionists claim may occasionally, under changing environmental conditions, be better adapted than the parents and thus propagate successfully. With further mutations, it is presumed that a new species will appear.
The observations of Mendel on genetic mutation provided evidence that such mutations go some of the way scientifically in explaining evolution. This changed the basis of the theory of Charles Darwin so much that it is now called Neo-Darwinism. It is fitting - or is it ironic?! - that Gregor Mendel, one of the followers of Augustine, made his mark in the field of science, which was an area of learning that the overwhelming intellectual influence of Saint Augustine of Hippo on the Middle Ages is said to have held back.
Photo Gallery For the Augnet photo gallery about the Order in the Czech Republic (including Gregor Mendel), click here.
Web site of the Augustinian Abbey, Brno. In numerous languages, this attractive web site is very detailed. Many photographs.http://www.opatbrno.cz In the footsteps of Mendel. By Margaret Hermánek Peaslee, Professor of Biology and Vice President for Academic Affairs, University of Pittsburgh at Titusville, Pennsylvania, United States of America. http://www.mendelweb.org/MWpeaslee.html
The Science of Heredity. An illustrated outline of Mendel’s discovery. http://fig.cox.miami.edu/~cmallery/150/mendel/heredity.htm
Mendelweb. A web site for scholars interested in the pioneering work of Gregor Mendel. http://www.mendelweb.org
Gregor Johann Mendel. A brief biography from Villanova University, which has been awarding a Mendel Medal since 1926 in honour of this famous Augustinian botanist. From Villanova University in the United States of America. http://astro4.ast.vill.edu/mendel/gregor.htm
Mendel's Scientific Paper: Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden. Read how numerous great universities received a copy of the paper of Gregor Mendel on plant hybridization, yet nobody recognised the significance of his insight until over a quarter of a century after his death. http://astro4.ast.vill.edu/mendel/versuche.htm
Mendel Time Line. What was happening in the world between 1822 and 1884, when Gregor Mendel was alive? http://www.mendelweb.org/MWtime.html
The Mendel Museum in Brno. A website of Czech Radio, featuring Gregor Mendel O.S.A. http://www.radio.cz/en/section/spotlight/the-mendel-museum-in-brno
Self-knowledge and the Sciences in the Early Thinking of Augustine. A very scholarly article by Johannes Brachtendorf of Tübingen. Only for the brave! http://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Medi/MediBrac.htm
Moravian Museum of Brno. It contains a spacious exhibition on Mendel and his scientific work. http://www.mendelianum.cz/en
Augnet additional For details and photographs (past and present) of the city of Brno and its Augustinian abbey where Mendel worked and lived, go to the Augnet pages on Brno, and on Lukas Evzen Martinec O.S.A.