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