When we think of famous biologists, names like Darwin or maybe Avery come to mind. They and countless others are renowned for their ground-breaking discoveries in biology - and, in Darwin's case, zoology and evolution.

Oswald Avery discovered how DNA passes on inherited traits across generations, should his name have slipped your mind.

Even Ronald Fischer, who married Darwin's theory of evolution to Mendel's laws of inheritance might be more famous than Mendel himself. How could that be?

In death as in life, Gregor Mendel was only belatedly recognised for the genius he was. An unassuming man from a humble background, his entire life was a struggle fought under a dismal cloud of poverty, failure and ridicule. Still, he gave the world of science so much!

Isn't it time Gregor Mendel got what he deserves - to be famous for the startling discoveries he made?

Superprof takes the lead in uncovering facets of Mendel's life.

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Johann Mendel: Early Life and Education

This future Father of Genetics was born into a poor farming family. He was the only boy, sandwiched between two daughters. Johann, the name given him at birth, enjoyed beekeeping and gardening but his intellectual passion was mathematics and physics.

His parents had little money to spend on education, especially as that outlay seemed wasted on the boy. Johann was a rather sickly child; his secondary school experience was interrupted by a long bout of illness. Still, his younger sister sacrificed her dowry to pay for her brother's education. It seems everybody, including their priest, recognised his genius.

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Mendel would have liked to have been a physicist
Gregor Mendel, the accidental naturalist, wanted to be a different type of scientist. Source: Wikipedia

Johann was not a particularly religious youth; he joined the monastery mostly for economic security.

As a monk now named Gregor, he enjoyed the peace of mind the abbey offered. He no longer had to worry about food and shelter; even his education would be paid for. Of course, he had to render service; life in the monastery was not all praying and religious training, after all.

He worked as a part-time teacher and even took the teacher's exam. He failed the oral component, leaving him unqualified to teach. After a stretch at the University of Vienna paid for by the Order, he returned to the abbey and retook the teacher's exam, only to fail it once again. Exam stress and the shame of failing again made him sick. For months, he was laid out with a nervous breakdown.

By no means should we take his repeated failure to mean he was a stupid man. He failed only the oral part of the teacher's exam; possibly, he was too shy or introverted to make a good impression on the examining board. Or perhaps The Fates simply had something far greater in store for him.

While Mendel only left his home country one time - to attend classes at the University of Vienna, Galen travelled all over the Roman Empire for his education...

Gregor Mendel: Why Peas?

As mentioned above, Mendel's passion was maths and physics; he discovered his love for science before he joined the religious order.

Before any thoughts of monkhood could shape his life, he was enrolled at the University of Olomouc (Czech Republic) for his secondary education. It was a difficult time; there was not much money so he tutored other students for a bit of cash for food and other expenses.

His stint there was overshadowed by the expectation that he would take over the family farm upon graduating. That idea caused him so much stress that he twice fell sick; he needed long absences from his lessons to recover. Nevertheless, the time he spent in that university helped to guide his future.

The Department of Natural History and Agriculture was headed by Johann Karl Nestler; later, he became the dean of the Philosophy Studies department... the field of study that Mendel had registered for. Nessler conducted experiments and taught courses in animal and plant hereditary traits.

Little is known about how well the two men got on or even if they formed any sort of relationship. Existing records indicate that Mendel was just one student among many. Still, we have to recognise a direct link between Nestler's work and Mendel's research. That's where the peas come in.

The monastery had roughly five acres of land. Mendel thought that would make a wonderful experimental garden.

While Mendel limited himself to a single organism, biologist Aristotle studied marine life, plant life and... essentially all animals.

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Mendel planted peas in the monastery's garden.
In a quiet corner of the abbey’s garden, Mendel, the accidental biologist, tracked the evolution of his peas. Photo credit: RobotSkirts on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC

Work, Discovery and Reception

After getting the abbot's blessing, Mendel planted his garden with no clear intention or direction. He chose peas because there are so many varieties. It probably didn't hurt that these plants are easy to grow in the right conditions, either. After gathering a bit of data, Mendel focused his study on seven unique traits:

  • plant height
  • flower location
  • flower colour
  • unripe pod colour
  • pod shape
  • seed shape
  • seed coat tint

Through observation, he had noted that these traits seemed independently inherited meaning that, regardless of the parent plant's pod shape, a daughter plant might grow pods of a different shape or colour.

He first set out to discover what cross-breeding differently-shaped seeds would yield. He could not have hoped for more straightforward results: of the second-generation plants, one in four showed dominant traits and another exhibited recessive ones. Two others showed traits from both seeds.

His were elegant yet simple experiments that led him to formulate the Law of Segregation and the Law of Independent Assortment which, combined later, came to be known as Mendelian Inheritance.

He lacked the scientific vocabulary - words like gametes and alleles were attached to his work by other scientists and biologists long after his death. Such words make it easy for modern science to pare his theory into a few simple phrases:

  • The Law of Segregation: each gene's alleles separate; each gamete carries just one allele per gene.
  • The Law of Independent Assortment: during the forming of gametes, genes with different traits may separate independently

Gregor Mendel presented his work, titled Experiments on Plant Hybridization to the Natural History Society in 1865. His report garnered a few positive press reviews but was largely ignored by the scientists. When it was published the next year, the scientific community regarded it as a work on hybrids rather than inheritance. Once again, his efforts were overlooked.

Over the next 35 years, only three other biologists cited his work. Many speculate that, had Charles Darwin known about Mendel's research, his theory of evolution - indeed, the whole field of genetics might have made greater advances much sooner.

While Mendel was essentially laughed out of scientific circles in his lifetime, Hippocrates was revered and respected.

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Genetics labs the world over are combing through Mendel's discoveries
Though Mendel did his best to provide explanations for species’ variations, people from every scientific discipline, from zoology to biology ignored him… but they’re listening now! Photo credit: IRRI Images on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

A Famous Biologist's Inglorious End

Gregor Mendel was a learned man, passionate about science and discovery. He never got to do much of anything in the fields of maths or physics - his first loves, other than to write elegant formulas to express his findings. Of course, his love of physics shaped his experiments.

Some 25 years after entering the monastery, he became the abbot. The promotion ended his life as a biologist. As he battled the administrative world of taxes and regulations - along with his increasingly poor health, Gregor Mendel likely had neither the time nor the energy to spend hours in the garden, recording observations of new hybridizations.

Mendel, the accidental biologist, naturalist and botanist, who gave us the terms 'recessive' and 'dominant' to explain how genes express, died of nephritis in January 1884. He was only 61 years old.

Despite his optimistic outlook about his work - he once said to a friend "My time will come", his work languished for years after his death. It wasn't until 1900, when German botanist and geneticist Carl Erich Correns, working with Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries, that Mendel's work reclaimed centre stage.

Such a waste of time! From Swiss botanist Carl von Nageli - who actively tried to discourage Mendel from any further genetic research to Charles Darwin, with his failed theory of pangenesis... If only the science community had given Mendel's work the attention it deserved!

Once the German/Swiss botany team opened the floodgates, scientists, botanists and geneticists from all over the world grew interested in Mendel's work.

English evolutionary biologist Raphael Weldon and biostatistician Karl Pearson filtered Mendel's discoveries through the lens of statistics. R.A. Fischer, a British statistician and geneticist also made a few contributions and, adding Darwin's natural selection theory into the mix, they finalised today's definition of evolutionary biology.

By 1913, nearly 30 years after Mendel's death, scientists and botanists had set themselves into two camps - the Mendelians and the Darwinians. Along came American zoologist Thomas Hunt Morgan, who discovered where the genes lie on the chromosomes, once again casting Mendel's theory of independent trait transmission in doubt. And so, the work continues...

"My time will come", Gregor Mendel once confided. He didn't live to see his prophecy fulfilled. But don't you think that this childless Father would be thrilled that botanists, zoologist, geneticists and the entire scientific community are finally taking him seriously?

Gregor Mendel didn't exactly die in ignominy but he certainly didn't get the send-off that Charles Darwin did!

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