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Mendel Museum reveals the hard life of the father of genetics

Half a year after his genetic discoveries, Mendel had become almost blind due to working in low-light conditions.

You can get a glimpse of the history of the university or its various departments from a number of seemingly inconspicuous objects. What were they used for? And where are they now? This will be the theme of a new Muni series set to run for the next ten months. We begin with objects that have not been on display for many years: this summer, the Mendel Museum at Masaryk University opened a new exhibition with items belonging to Gregor Johann Mendel, the father of genetics.

Among other things, these include his pectoral cross – an ornamental cross worn on the chest – that Mendel wore as the prelate of the Augustinian congregation together with a ring. Until now, visitors could only see them in a portrait, which is also owned by the Mendel Museum.

“These were last displayed several years ago and only very briefly. Now we have them because the Brno Augustinians want people to have the chance to see these things. They told us to borrow anything that seems interesting from their depositories,” says Ondřej Dostál, the director of the Mendel Museum located on Mendel Square in Brno.

Dostál and his colleagues did as the Augustinians asked, and so the exhibition includes objects that Mendel used every day as well as documents that he wrote. It also uses modern visualisation technologies to depict the places where he lived.

The director of the museum first began considering this project two years ago. The crucial impulse came last year from the anniversary celebrations commemorating the first publication of Mendel’s ideas on plant crossbreeding. The visualisations used in part by the current exhibition were also created for the anniversary.

In Dostál’s words, the visualizations can give a very good idea about the remarkably busy life of the world-renowned scholar, who had to fit his work on generic discoveries, beekeeping, and his interest in meteorology into the demanding daily routine of an Augustinian monk:

“Members of the order were employed, often as teachers and on top of that they had to fulfil their religious duties and got up every morning at five, so working at night wasn’t really an option, either. Moreover, they only had oil lamps for light, which was also the reason why Mendel went almost blind half a year after his breakthroughs in genetics.”

Calling Mendel a “world-renowned” scholar is no hyperbole, as Dostál points out in a rhetorical question, “Brno and the university are very lucky to have this link to Mendel. What other branch of science can point out both its founder and the place where it was born?” and adds, referring to his many interviews with scientists who come to Brno to attend the Mendel Lectures or other events:

“I think that if it wasn’t for this link, the city of Brno itself probably wouldn’t be of much interest for them. But as things are, Paul Nurse, a geneticist, laureate of the Nobel Prize in Medicine and former president of the British Royal Society says that for him, Brno is a city with a capital C, because that’s where it all started.”

The importance of Mendel in history also has other, less obvious consequences for the exhibition organisers. The objects that became part of the exhibition had to be duly insured before it opened. Any walking stick from the 19th century has a certain value in itself, but a walking stick that once belonged to an important scientist is an entirely different matter and its insurance value soars into the hundreds of thousands of Czech crowns.

Between them, the Mendel Museum and the Augustinians have about a hundred objects linked to the father of genetics. About thirty of them are displayed at the current exhibition and others may follow. The creators of the exhibition plan to open an online poll for people to vote on which things will make it from the depository to the display cases.