Gregor Mendel, the founder of genetics, is renowned as one of the world’s most ingenious and influential scientists. Nonetheless, he remains misunderstood and enigmatic, his history shrouded in controversy and myth. Escaping poverty, he joined a scholarly community of Augustinian friars in a monastery and studied at the University of Vienna under some of Europe’s most accomplished scientists. He returned to a tumultuous milieu at the monastery as he and his fellow friars suffered a harrowing investigation accusing them of secularism and pantheistic philosophy. Against this backdrop, Mendel initiated an epic set of experiments with the common garden pea that would lead him to reveal the mystery of inheritance. The article he published would become a classic in the history of science.
Darwin’s Origin of Species shook the world in 1859. Its impact eclipsed Mendel’s discovery, presented just a few years after Darwin’s pivotal book. Unlike Darwin, who witnessed his work attain immediate worldwide fame (and infamy), Mendel would never know how powerfully his discoveries would impact science and humanity; his achievements languished in obscurity until well beyond his death. “The laws governing inheritance are quite unknown,” Darwin lamented just a few pages into the Origin of Species. Mendel had discovered and presented those laws, which ultimately would bridge the most gaping chasm in Darwin’s theory. In 1900, at the dawn of the twentieth century, several influential scientists independently rediscovered Mendel’s theory, elevating it to the highest echelon of scientific triumph. The new science, christened genetics, immediately generated controversies, some of which continue to the present. Throughout modern history, proponents and detractors alike have coopted Mendel’s theory to buttress their worldviews, fueling the flames of disputes and prolonging political battles. Unquestionably, however, it has served as the foundation for some history’s greatest scientific advances.
This book commemorates Mendel’s life and legacy at the bicentennial of his birth. It interweaves traditional accounts of his history with newly discovered evidence to reveal an extraordinary teacher, a resolute priest and abbot, and a complex and guileless scientist whose momentous discoveries have remained essentially unchanged for more than a century and a half.