Garden of Mendel

Academic exclusivity in the field of science has been the bane of common people who love this noble discipline but find contributing to it substantially difficult. Those not ‘formally trained’ have their opinions often sidelined. The history of science teaches us that nature is a wonderful professor, and one of her greatest students was Gregor Johann Mendel, a man of religion and abbot who became one of the greatest scientists known in world history, but for whom scientific recognition came late—in fact, late in his career—he wrote: “My scientific work brought me such satisfaction, and I am convinced the entire world will recognise the results of these studies.”

St Thomas’s Abbey (where Gregor Johann Mendel was an abbot) and Garden of Mendel in Brno Czech Republic. Photo Credits: Professor Arkaja Goswami.

WE Castle wrote in his article ‘Mendel’s Law of Heredity’ published by ‘American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ that “what will doubtless rank as one of the great discoveries in biology, and in the study of heredity perhaps the greatest, was made by Gregor Mendel, an Austrian (then Brno was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) monk, in the garden of his cloister.” It was by experimenting with pea plant breeding that Mendel developed three principles of inheritance that described the transmission of genetic traits before anyone knew genes existed. Mendel’s laws include the Law of Dominance and Uniformity, the Law of Segregation, and the Law of Independent Assortment.

Recently, the authors of this article visited his workplace, the Augustinian Abbey of St. Thomas in Staré Brno (Old Brno) in the Czech Republic, where he was given the name Gregor, and where, in a garden, he did the aforementioned experiment of pea plant breeding to give his laws of genetics. After savouring beverages in the cafe near his garden, the authors decided to write this article to make people more aware of the life of this humble genius and also why it is important for scientists to learn from those who have no formal scientific training but a highly receptive and innovative intellect.

Sam Wong writes for New Scientist “Mendel was far ahead of his time, and his work was largely ignored for the next 35 years. In 1868, he was appointed as an abbot and, overwhelmed with administrative duties, had little time left to continue his research. He died in 1884, aged 62. In 1900, three scientists independently confirmed his work, but it was another 30 years before his conclusions were widely accepted.” Mendel had to wait for much-needed recognition even though his work was of exceptional quality, just because of his non-conformity with then-dominant scientific thought and jargon. No biography of Mendel was published until 1924, when Dr. Hugo Iltis published a volume in German. This was translated by Eden and Cedar Paul and appears as the Life of Mendel. According to Dr. Hugo Iltis, “Gregor Mendel was born of peasant stock, and his ardent love of study may well have been first directed towards science by the teaching of the elements of natural history at the village school.”

When the authors of this article reached the traditional capital of the Moravia region of the Czech Republic, Brno, situated at the confluence of the Svratka and Svitava rivers, they went straight to the Augustinian Abbey of St. Thomas, the workplace of Mendel. The Augustinian Convent, dedicated to the Annunciation of the Lord and to the Apostle St. Thomas (who was sent to preach gospel in India by Jesus Christ and who attained martyrdom in India), was founded in Brno in 1356. Pope Benedict XIV promoted the convent in 1752 to the rank of abbey, which has since been subordinated directly to the General Prior of the Order. Hence, the Abbey in Brno forms an integral part of the St. Augustine Order and is governed by its constitutions and statues. After visiting the garden of Mendel, where the genius learned complicated lessons of science from nature itself, authors went to the Mendel Museum of Masaryk University, where in July 2016 an exhibition that combines modern technologies with its historical premises titled ‘Gregor Johann Mendel: The Story of a Humble Genius’ was opened.

Visitors to this museum can learn more about genetic diseases, scientists who have contributed to the field of genetics, and the life of Abbot Gregor Mendel, to whom this museum is dedicated. From Mendel’s experiment with peas to CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors, the journey has been long and arduous in the field of genetics. Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, mentioned about CRISPR/Cas9: “There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all. It has not only revolutionised basic science but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments.” In 2020, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier from the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, Berlin, Germany, and Jennifer A. Doudna from the University of California, Berkeley, USA, for the development of a method for genome editing (discovering CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors).

The father of genetics laid the foundation of a field that now includes medical genetics, a field of medicine that deals with diagnosing, treating, and preventing genetic diseases. Gene therapy holds promise as a treatment for a wide range of diseases, such as cancer, cystic fibrosis, heart disease, diabetes, haemophilia, and AIDS. Humble genius Mendel worked hard, and as we mentioned before in this article late in his career, he wrote, “My scientific work brought me such satisfaction, and I am convinced the entire world will recognise the results of these studies.” Indeed, now the scientific community recognises the work done by Mendel and calls him the ‘father of genetics.’ The life of Mendel teaches us that formal scientific education is not a prerequisite for excellence in this discipline; what is required is inquisitiveness and determination to work hard.

Professor Arkaja Goswami, University of Delhi, co-authored this article.

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