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Gregor Mendel (1822 – 1884)

Biologist, Father of Modern Genetics

Imagine a man whose whole life was spent working on experiments and discoveries but who never received any caring or recognition for his work?

Imagine experiencing much pain, suffering, and disappointment but being strong enough to hold your head up high and carry on loving life. This was Gregor Mendel.

Johann Mendel was born on the 22nd of July 1822 in Austria and was the youngest of three children.

The family was quite poor but supported Mendel to attend a better school, which supported his academic brilliance.

His father had a bad fall soon after Johann graduated and he was asked to take over their family farm.

Luckily, his eldest sister’s husband agreed to manage the farm, while his other sister gave him money for his studies. In turn, Johann would later help her kids through school.

He studied philosophy and finally attended the St Thomas Monastery at 21 years to become a monk. With that, he followed tradition and changed his name to “Gregor”.

During his time at the monastery, he studied and taught other students philosophy, Latin, theology, Greek, physiology, mathematics and natural science.

He experienced a lot of sickness because of which he could never complete his exams to become a certified teacher, even though the head of the monastery supported him.

Because of his interest in physiology, he began breeding and studying mice to figure out how they inherited the colour of their coats.

He switched to studying plants after he was told that breeding and studying mice was not the best for a monk.

This was the turning point in Mendel’s life. With the support of his colleagues in the monastery, he first began experimenting on the pea plants in the monastery garden.

He chose seven characteristics of the peas to study – the colour of the ripe seed, the shape of the ripe pod, the colour of the seed coat, the shape of the ripe seed, the colour of the unripe pod, the length of the stem, and the position of the flowers on the stem.

He ended up cultivating 28,000 pea plants to test and proposed the Law of Segregation and the Law of Independent Assortment, together they were called Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance.

In these experiments, he found that the seeds the plants produced seemed to be of two kinds - the round seeds and the wrinkled seeds. Because the round seeds were more than the wrinkled ones, he named them “dominating” and the wrinkled ones “recessive”.

Mendel improved his research even more. He was the first person to give single letters to the two qualities. The dominating quality was known with a capital letter (A), and the recessive quality was known with a lower case letter (a).

He repeated these experiments on many different types of pea plants. At this time, he did not know what genes or chromosomes (as we know it today) were. However, he only knew that there were two types of qualities in every plant, which played a role in its appearance one inherited from each parent plant.

He also knew that when the plant inherited both an “A” and “a” quality/trait the “A” was more powerful, but that the “a” can appear in a future generation.

Soon after this, the head of his monastery died, and Mendel was chosen as the new head. This did not give him much time to focus on his plant experiments. Sometimes he used to repeat his experiments on other types of plants to see if he got the same results.

He wrote a few scientific papers describing his research and gave two lectures to explain his results. However, his explanations were a bit complicated and most of the audience did not understand what he was trying to say.

A few years later Mendel’s entire greenhouse, which was where he kept his plants for experiments, was destroyed in a huge tornado that ripped through his city. This upset him greatly and he never went back to working with plants.

For a short while afterwards he started working on honeybees, and started cross breeding different types of honeybees from Egypt and South America.

With all this that he had going on, this brave man also found time to study astronomy and the patterns of the weather (meteorology). He later started the Austrian Meteorological Society, and most of his scientific papers that were published were related to meteorology.

In honour of Mendel, the botanical author name of these plants is “Mendel”.

Towards the end of his life, he had started smoking very heavily mistakenly thinking it would help him lose weight. Unfortunately, it led to serious kidney failure and he passed away on the 6th of January 1884 at the age of 61 in what is today known as the Czech – Republic.

After his death, the head of the monastery who replaced him burned all the papers in Mendel’s collection because he thought it symbolized the end of a previous disagreement.

Mendel’s work was sadly rejected when he was alive, and it was only almost 30 years after his death that people began to realize how important his research really was to the study of genetics.