Happy 200th Birthday, Gregor Mendel

Remembering the world’s first geneticist, and a tax protester to boot


On this day 200 years ago, Johann Mendel was born. He would come to be known as Gregor (the religious name he received upon entering St. Thomas's Abbey in Austria-Hungary as an Augustinian Friar) and later as the "father of modern genetics." 

Mendel studied math, physics, and eventually botany in school. While conducting experiments breeding hybridized pea plants in the monastery garden and greenhouse, he discovered the principles of heredity. As one article on his life explains:

He chose to study the inheritance of seven traits (seed shape, seed coat tint, flower color, flower location, pod shape, unripe pod color, and plant height). Altogether Mendel grew and tested about 28,000 plants. He discovered mathematical patterns in the inheritance of these traits, which he explained in terms of two laws (the "Law of Segregation" and the "Law of Independent Assortment"), which are now called Mendel's Laws of Inheritance.

Mendel developed a theory involving what he called dominant and recessive "factors"—what would come to be known as "genes." This work paved the way for all future research in the genetic sciences, including the discovery of DNA. But his contributions would not be recognized in his lifetime.

In 1866, Mendel published the results of his experiments. The paper received little attention. In 1868 he was named abbot (head monk) of his monastery, and his research gave way to administrative obligations. In 1884, he died.

Things began to change in 1900. That year, a British biologist named William Bateson unearthed Mendel's paper. He translated it into English and became a proponent of the ideas therein. Bateson's own experiments extended Mendel's discoveries, showing, for example, that Mendelian principles applied to animals as well as plants. He also bestowed the name genetics onto this area of study.

Today, Mendel is widely recognized, as Britannica puts it, as "the architect of genetic experimental and statistical analysis." 

Biographies of Mendel also point to a history of run-ins with the state by the famed researcher. These took at least two forms.

When he first arrived at St. Thomas's Abbey, Mendel was assigned to a teaching job. But the Austro-Hungarian government around that time began requiring an exam for teacher certification. Mendel, who suffered from severe test anxiety, attempted the exam on two occasions, six years apart, and failed it both times.

Two decades later, as abbot, Mendel again found himself at loggerheads with the authorities after a new city law attempted to subject the monastery to heavy taxation. "The very idea made Mendel boil," writes Robin Marantz Henig in The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics. "The abbot began a single-handed letter-writing campaign," which became "more detailed, more impassioned, more strident, and more vituperative as the years went on….The stubborn abbot never wavered in his insistence that a tax on church property was unconstitutional."  

The battle lasted until Mendel's death a decade later. He never did agree to pay the tax.