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What was Gregor Johann Mendel like?

Professor Emeritus of genetics from Masaryk University Jiřina Relichová is an expert in Mendel’s life and work. Having studied his personal correspondence, testimonies of people who knew him or his biography or his own poetry she can explain in detail the personality of this giant of science.

Jiřina Relichová.

Rarely can we attribute the laying of the foundations of a branch of science to a particular person, work, place or time. This, however, is exactly the case of Gregor Johann Mendel whose work Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden (Experiments in Plant Hybridisation) published in Brno in 1865 did represent the foundations of genetics. As such, he is referred to as the father of genetics, and is often compared to other great scientists, such as Copernicus, Darwin, Einstein and many more.

That being said, we do not know that much about him. At the time of discovery of the principles of inheritance nobody understood and acknowledged its significance. His work was “rediscovered” sixteen years after his passing, giving the impetus for the birth of a new branch of science – genetics. In his lifetime, Mendel was only known in Brno and the surrounding region, mostly as a member of the Order of Saint Augustine at the Old Brno Abbey, and eventually as an abbot, teacher and public official in a variety of associations and organisations. He was known for his passion for life sciences, in which he was directly involved or interested in as a member of scientific organisations.

When, after 1900, the professional community realised that his discoveries were phenomenal, the interest in his work and personal life started to grow. In order to better understand his qualities and opinions, experts turned to his memoirs (written at the age of 28 when he was signing up for teacher exams in Vienna), as well as his correspondence or reports on the outcomes of his experiments with pea plants.

Curious, talented and ambitious
Even as a child Mendel was very curious, talented and ambitious. In spite of his humble origins, his lust for knowledge was strong. He demonstrated keen interest in nature; he wanted to learn new things. Having completed elementary school (where his teachers repeatedly noted his talent) he begged his parents to let him continue with his studies.

At the age of eleven, he left his village to study at a Piarist school in Lipník nad Bečvou, where he soon became the best of his class. His hard work would eventually open door to further six-year studies at the secondary school in Opava and then to two-year programme at what is now the university in Olomouc. At the age of 21, he knew that any further education would depend on his financial and social security. As he wrote himself in his memoirs, this security was fulfilled upon his joining the Old Brno Abbey. At that time he dreamt of teaching career, and despite failing teacher exams twice, he landed a teaching job at the age of 32, teaching physics and biology at a secondary school.

Introvert, introspective and determined
While staying in the monastery, he would only have contact with his relatives and very small circle of friends, and only had limited correspondence. In his letters to his parents, he never mentioned matters of private nature or his work. In a letter in 1853, he noted: “I am healthy, I study hard; and we will see what happens, I hope”.

Even as a young man he was very much interested in, and fascinated by, nature and its mysteries. While planning his experiments with pea plants, he would study in advance the results of the experiments carried out by his predecessors. He knew it was going to be a challenging task and he would prepare meticulously for all experiments. His choice of pea plants was not a coincidence as he was well aware of their characteristics.

It took him two years to prepare, study and select the most suitable varieties. He would come up with hypotheses and test them extensively via complex experiments, recording everything in the greatest detail. Even though the outcomes confirmed the hypotheses, he would carry out further experiments. They were very complex and tool ten years (including the preparation of materials). It has been estimated that he analysed more than 27,000 plants. In 1865 he presented the outcomes of his experiments at two meetings of his association and published them in its journal.

Mendel was a genius, and his work Experiments in Plant Hybridisation is an example of top science even today. He was very much focused on discovering the principles of inheritance, and he would keep proving individual hypotheses over and over. He would use his knowledge in botany, maths of physics. Despite the fact that nobody really understood the principle and significance of his experiments in plant crossbreeding and his work was largely ignored, he remained focused on this topic until his death. He was certain that the results of his experiments in inheritance were accurate and generally valid and that they will eventually be appreciated.

Mendel was equally meticulous in other fields of science, including meteorology, beekeeping or pomiculture. Analytical thinking and detail-oriented approach were very much useful in the implementation of new knowledge and discoveries.

Philanthropic and generous
Mendel loved his family. His correspondence written in Brno or Vienna offers plenty of evidence of his close relationship with his mother. He was also very generous. He never forgot his younger sister Terezie’s generosity that helped him study; later, as his own financial situation improved, he financially supported her three sons during their studies. In 1868 when a new abbot was about to be appointed (and Mendel was among the candidates) he was aware of the potential improvement of his financial situation, and how it would helped his loved ones. Upon leaving the family’s house shortly before the appointment, he told his family: “Pray for me, kids, because if I am prelate, I will be able to do more for you”.

Thousands of people attended his funeral march to the Brno central cemetery. In addition to public officials and clergy many low-income people came to pay respects for whom the generous Mendel was often the only donor, supporter or even saviour. 

V. Orel: Gregor Mendel a počátky genetiky, Academia, 2003.
Folia Mendeliana, Acta Musei Moraviae, MZM Brno, various editions. 

You can listen to the complete podcasts entitled Mendel - The Man, in which Jiřina Relichová talks about J. G. Mendel, on the website of the Faculty of Science of MU.