Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 629:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 629.

Today, a shy monk teaches us plant genetics. And we're slow to learn. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Johann Gregor Mendel was born in what is, today, the Czech Republic, in 1822. That was the same year my great grandfather, Johann, was born in Switzerland. It was really not so long ago. In 1843 Mendel joined a monastery at Brno. He took the name of Brother Gregor.

The Brno monastery was a learning center that supported itself by farming. Of course scholarship and farming created an agricultural experiment station there. "Gregor" Mendel was bright and he'd studied some science before he took Holy Orders. He was soon in charge of the experimental gardens at Brno.

The Abbot also gave him duties ministering to the sick at a local hospital. He failed miserably at that. He was shy by nature. He couldn't bear all that suffering. He grew ill and depressed. Finally, the Abbot pulled him out and sent him away -- first to teach school, then to study science in Vienna.

When Mendel came back to Brno he put his real talents to use. He was a fine teacher and a talented experimentalist. In 1856, he began work in two areas. He studied meteorology and hybrid peas. His straight forward work in meteorology was well enough received. People ignored his work with peas. Yet that's where Mendel changed history.

He showed how, when we cross peas, their traits of shape and color reproduce. When peas had only two traits, that was simple. When you juggle multiple traits, the formulae grow exponentially more complex. After 7 yrs. of maddenly patient statistical work, he'd identified dominant and recessive traits. He wrote the rules by which living things reproduce themselves.

Mendel presented that work before the great European biologists in 1865. A year later he published it in a journal that reached 120 learned societies around the world. It was ignored.

By now, all eyes focused on Darwin's new theory of natural selection. Biologists couldn't reconcile Mendel's observation of distinct hereditary factors with Darwin's gradations between species. Mendel made no sense to scientists until they knew what chromosomes did.

Mendel went on to become Abbot of the Brno Monastery. For sixteen years, this shy man tried to juggle his liberal politics, research, and the well-being of the monastery. In 1884 the stress of the job killed him.

It was 1900 before biologists rediscovered this lonely genius. Only then did Mendel's work become the cornerstone of modern genetics. Only then did we acknowledge Mendel as father of a whole scientific field.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Kruta, V. and Orel, V., Mendel, Johann Gregor. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. (C.C. Gilespie, ed.) Chas. Scribner and Sons, 1970-1980.

Ilitis, H., Life of Mendel. (Tr. by Eden and Cedar Paul) New York: Hafner Pub. Co., 1966.

I am grateful to Judy E. Myers, UH Library, for suggesting the story line and for her advice on the episode.

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The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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