Gregor Mendel is now popularly called the Father of Genetics. The title is just fitting for one who founded the basic principles of heredity and variation in living organisms. He did not know it during his lifetime, but he was destined to become one of the most influencial persons to the growth of biology.
In 1962, James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins jointly won the highly coveted Nobel Prize for having discovered the structure of the DNA, the “secret of life.” Rosalind Franklin would also have shared the prize had she lived (Phelan 2006). (Click here to read a surprising update on Watson's and Crick's nobel prize medals).
Now the terms genetic engineering and genetically-modified organisms (GMO) have become popular terms in both plant and animal improvement and in biology as a whole. Cloning has also been exploited as a theme in the production of movies. But all these started with Mendel.
Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) was born Johann Mendel from poor farmer parents in Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic. He was quite exposed to growing plants during his boyhood. He helped in tending the gardens which supply food to the family. Hampered by poverty, his early education consisted mainly of instructions from an uncle.
At the age of twenty-one, he joined the monastery in his town of Brünn, now Brno, and he was ordained a monk by the name Gregor. Seeking to become a teacher like the rest of the monks, he took the qualifying exam but failed. He did it twice and likewise failed twice.
But the abbot (a leader) of the monastery was convinced that Gregor Mendel was intelligent and so he was sent to college. For two years from 1851 to 1853 Mendel studied mathematics and physics at the University of Vienna. Thereafter he taught science at the local secondary school, called gymnasium.
For eight years Gregor Mendel conducted his experiments on garden pea (Pisum sativum L.; Mendel 1865) in the monastery. The results would lead to the birth of a new science. His work has become the foundation of genetics, the science of heredity and variation in all living things. But the recognition did not happen when he was still alive.
He first read a report about his experiments in a scientific meeting in 1865, but he was met with silence and simply ignored. In 1866 his findings were published in an obscure publication, the Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Brünn. But his work was treated with almost total indifference by the scientific community.
For years the importance of his work was not given the recognition that it now has.
In 1868 he became the abbot of the monastery and he was compelled to abandon teaching in order to attend to his responsibilities. He also gave up all experimentation.
Just exactly why Gregor Mendel’s findings took years to be installed in their proper hierarchical place in the history of biology is now difficult to establish. But first, he worked and lived in isolation in a monastery. Unlike in universities where most researches were done, the monastery restricted exchange of ideas. Second, he was the first to combine mathematics with biology. But at the time, there was a wide gap between the two disciplines. Mendel was rather unique because he was a mathematician engaged in biological research.
Third, his attempt started in 1866 to duplicate his results using a different test plant failed. This is because he used the hawkweed (Hieracium sp.) which, he was unaware, reproduced seeds asexually through apomixis. Being apomictic, the species produce clones of the mother plants. There is no transmission of paternal traits so that all offspring in the succeeding generations exhibit only the phenotype of the original mother plants. It is only in rare cases that apomicts may also produce reduced egg cells which, if fertilized, results to sexual reproduction (Nogler 2006).
Then, in 1900, 34 years after Gregor Mendel published his findings and 16 years after his demise, several scientists proved him right. Working independently, Hugo de Vries in Holland, Carl Correns in Germany, and Eric von Tshermak in Austria derived the same results as Mendel’s.
After learning of Mendel’s work, they credited him as the original of their findings. His derivations are now called the Mendelian Laws or Principles of Segregation and of Independent Assortment. These fundamental rules explain that traits are transmitted from generation to generation in uniform predictable fashion and not necessarily a blending process. With the expansion of the science of genetics, these laws have been supplemented and extended.
Mendel’s application of mathematics, particularly statistics, in biology was subsequently adopted by researchers like Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866-1945) and co-workers. Their studies on fruit fly or Drosophila established the modern methodology in studies concerning genetics. It confirmed the gene (Mendel’s “factor”) as the unit of heredity and the chromosome as the physical structure which carried the genes. The subsequent discovery of mitosis, or nuclear division, and meiosis, or reduction division, as well as the manner in which the chromosomes are distributed further boosted the findings of Gregor Mendel (Rook 1964).
Addendum: No, Mendel's findings were not totally ignored. His report entitled “Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden” (Experiments on Plant Hybrids) was cited by various authors at least 15 times (Olby 1985, cited by Fairbanks and Rytting 2001) between 1865 and 1899. In 1900, de Vries, Correns, and von Tschermak rediscovered and confirmed his results. Still, there were doubts about his objectives, methods, data and presentation. There were some who claimed that he was a fraud. Seeking to address these controversies, Fairbanks and Rytting (2001) made an in-depth analysis and made the following conclusion:
"A synthesis of botanical and historical evidence supports our conclusions: Mendel did not fabricate his data, his description of his experiments is literal, he articulated the laws of inheritance attributed to him insofar as was possible given the information he had, he did not detect linkage, and he neither strongly supported nor opposed Darwin."
(Ben G. Bareja 2012, edited Nov. 18, 2013)