Gregor Mendel (1822-1884)

Gregor Johann Mendel was an Austrian scientist and friar, now famous for being the founder of the field of genetics. He was born into a farming family in the village of Heinzendorf bei Odrau under the Austrian Empire. As a child he worked as a gardener and learnt beekeeping on the farm his family had owned for 130 years. He studied philosophy and physics at the University of Olomouc in 1840, and upon graduating started his training to become a priest in an Augustinian monastery. In 1851 he was sponsored by the abbot to go to the University of Vienna to study physics, and returned to the monastery two years later as a teacher. By 1867 he had himself attained the rank of abbot there.

Between 1856 and 1863, Mendel cultivated 29,000 pea plants in the monastery garden in order to study variation in plants, inspired by his professors and monastic colleagues. Mendel was also interested in meteorology and theories of evolution, and one purpose of the experiment was to support Lamarck’s evolutionary ideas. He had noticed that plants inherited attributes in certain ratios, and his tests confirmed that one quarter displayed purely dominant characteristics, one quarter purely recessive, while the other half were hybrid plants.

This ratio led him to formulate his laws of inheritance. His paper on the subject was published in 1866, but had little impact during his lifetime. Most biologists were still preoccupied with the notion of blending inheritance, while Mendel was finding that hereditary factors are transmitted intact to the next generation. He attempted the same experiment with bees, but found monitoring mating behaviours was too difficult.

The years after the pea experiments were largely dedicated to administrative matters once Mendel became abbot, and he died in 1884 from nephritis. His ideas were only rediscovered in the 20th century, when his findings on genetics were combined with Darwin’s theory of natural selection. His work is now recognised as the foundation of modern genetics.