Gregor Mendel was an Augustinian monk from Moravia. His contribution to science is in the field of heredity. Although DNA, chromosomes and genetics were unknown concepts at the time, Mendel’s experiments focused on the outward effects of the genetic programming (the phenotype).
Mendel grew up in an impoverished rural family living in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. Mendel’s father purchased some farmland which had suffered neglect during this period of European unrest. He put his energies into agricultural pursuits, teaching Gregor valuable techniques in crop raising. However, there was no money for formal schooling, so Gregor had minimal education. He also tended to suffer from the effects of poor nourishment and a sensitive constitution.
Upon advise from a local priest, Gregor entered an Augustinian monastery and took the vows of a monk. He studied maths and sciences and taught them to young students. But the monastery provided more than classical studies. It had large gardens which offered Mendel an opportunity to study plant life. Mendel has become best known for his pea plant experiments, conducted over the course of a decade. He was particularly interested in the difficulty in hybrid plant reproduction. With some regularity, hybrids would produce plants which looked dissimilar to themselves.
Mendel chose to study various characteristics of pea plants. One trait which he analyzed was the height of the plant. Some were tall and others were short. He spent the first few years of his botany studies breeding pure forms of tall (TT) and of dwarf (dd) pea plants. These he called the parent generation. Then he cross-pollinated these. The results were a Filial 1 (sibling) generation of tall plants (Td). In today’s terms, he had produced plants which carried both the dominant (T) gene and a recessive (d) gene. Because a dominant gene was present, the plant displayed the dominant tall (T) characteristic, even though it carried a recessive (d) gene for shortness. All plants therefore in this generation showed only the characteristics of one parent plant (the tall one).
However, the next generation of plants (Filial 2) produced quite a startling departure from their predecessors. This second generation was allowed to self-pollinate. These mixed (Td) plants generated a characteristic proportion of tall and short plants. In this generation, some received a dominant gene from each parent plant and were pure talls (TT). Others received a recessive gene from each parent and were pure dwarfs (dd). And others received both a dominant and a recessive gene, giving them a tall appearance with a genotype of Td. Therefore by mixing and matching the T and d, Mendel observed that 3 out of every 4 plants in this generation would be tall (TT, Td, dT) and 1 out of 4 would be a dwarf plant (dd). This F2 generation displayed characteristics which reflected the traits of both contributing parental plants.
Although Mendel showed his results to a botanist at the University of Munich and even published a paper on his findings, there was neither interest nor follow-up on his research at that time. It was not until the beginning of the 1900s, when three independent teams of scientists discovered his writings and produced the same results in their experiments, that they affirmed Mendel’s conclusions. The scientists credited Mendel with the discovery.
Today, Mendel is known as the father of modern genetics, although unfortunately he never lived to see the widespread acclaim for his work or the fame that attended it. He continued to live out his life as abbot of the monastery, where he taught and held fast to his Christian faith.