If you’ve ever taken (or taught) a high school freshman biology class, you’ve definitely heard of our Catholic scientist for this week. Living in an Augustinian monastery in the Czech Republic, his meticulous research methods and discovery of the “invisible factors” of pea plants make him the father of modern genetics. Though Gregor Mendel only gained posthumous recognition for his contributions to science, his work has influenced thousands of other scientists and their work in genetic science.
Born in 1822 in a small village in what was then the Austrian empire (now part of the Czech Republic), Mendel was one of three children and the only boy, sandwiched between his older sister, Veronika, and his younger sister, Theresia. His young life was not without hardship, as his family struggled to make ends meet on the farm they’d worked for over 130 years. As a teenager, illness forced him to leave school for months and years at a time.
He became a friar because it enabled him to gain an education without having to pay for it himself. The monastic life, he wrote, “spared [him] from the perpetual anxiety about means of a livelihood,” and he joined the Augustinian friars when he was about twenty-five years old.
Mendel began working as a high school substitute teacher while in his training for the priesthood. Unfortunately, speaking in front of a classroom was not Mendel’s strong suit, and he failed the oral part of the teaching exam — twice. Being a high school teacher was just not in God’s plan for Mendel, who eventually returned to the monastery and began his work in the garden.
We know today that genetic traits are passed down to us from our parents, and from our grandparents to our parents. Things like our eye color, hair color, and height are all determined by the expression of one or more genes in our bodies. The predisposition for each trait depends on a specific mathematical modeling system, wherein “dominant” and “recessive” genes are expressed in a certain ratio. That’s why we have blue eyes or brown eyes, and not some mixture of brownish-blue eyes.
Mendel discovered all this with the pea plants he used in the garden. Though he had no idea what DNA was, he knew that somehow, information was being passed down through generations of plants, making them look like their parent generations. He meticulously recorded certain traits of the pea plants and eventually established a mathematical model predicting what the offspring of two plants would look like.
He published his work in 1866, astounding the world and shaking up the scientific community. But his work was soon lost, until two other scientists accidentally duplicated his experiments and rediscovered Mendel 40 years after his death. His notes made them realize the significance of their findings.
Because of Mendel’s work, we can say to a new baby, “Oh, you got my eyes!” or “Oh, you’re going to grow up to be tall and lanky like your dad!” His work is very much alive, as scientists increasingly focus on genetic answers to treat the diseases that plague us today.
--Claire Kosewic, Staff Bulletin Writer
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