Gregor Mendel is without a doubt one of the greatest biologists of all time and is considered to be the father of genetics. Although he became a successful abbot of a monastery later in his life, his life was not short of struggles. Yet through curiosity and perseverance he overcame them and went on to make one of the biggest discoveries in all of biology.
Mendel was born on 20 July 1822 to a German speaking family in the Austrian Empire (now Czech Republic). Unfortunately, his family was financially struggling. In his childhood, he studied gardening and beekeeping in his spare time. He attended preparatory high school in Opava. Despite having to take 4 months off school due to illness, he managed to persevere and complete his high school education.
Subsequently, he enrolled in the University of Olmutz to study philosophy and physics. However, he was still ailing and had to take a year off from his education. To make things worse, he was struggling financially. Luckily, his noble sister, Theresia, aided him by giving him her dowry. He managed to complete his university education in 1843.
Mendel then desired to become a teacher. He managed to get a job as a high school substitute teacher. Subsequently, he took an examination to become a certified high school teacher in 1850 but he failed the oral part of the exam due to anxiety issues.
During his time as a high school substitute teacher, he managed to become a priest. This enabled him to get financial sponsorships to attain further education. Thus he enrolled in the University of Vienna in 1851. In 1853, after completion of his education, he returned to his monastery, where he was a physics teacher and a researcher. This is when Mendel did the most important work of his life.
Mendel used pea plants to study heredity. He self fertilized plants that were tall and noticed that the ratio of tall offspring to short offspring was 3:1. He realized that some traits were dominant over other traits which were recessive. This means that if a pea plant has genes for a dominant trait (tall) and also for a recessive trait (short), the dominant trait will suppress the recessive trait, making the pea plant tall. He did this with nearly 30,000 pea plants and experimented with many traits including height, flower color, seed color, seed shape. This 3:1 dominant-recessive pattern was consistent with all traits despite the large sample size. Gregor Mendel made four conclusions based on this experiment. Characteristics are made possible by invisible factors (now known as genes). Some factors (genes) can be dominant over other recessive genes. Each gamete (sperm or egg cell) has only one form of a factor (law of segregation). Factors are inherited independently of one another (law of independent assortment). This was the first major discovery in the field of genetics. Unfortunately, the significance of his work was not realized until three decades after his death.
Although Mendel died on January 6, 1884, his name is immortalized due to his remarkable findings. These findings kickstarted the field of genetics, which now helps save and improve the lives of many in the form of gene editing treatment and its applications in agriculture. It is remarkable how Mendel, despite illness, anxiety and financial struggle, managed to accomplish something that is so noble by following his curiosity and his aptitude for erudition.
- Richter, Father Clemens. “Remembering Johann Gregor Mendel: a human, a Catholic priest, an Augustinian monk, and abbot.” Molecular genetics & genomic medicine 3.6 (2015): 483-485.
- Gayon, Jean. “From Mendel to epigenetics: History of genetics.” Comptes rendus biologies 339.7-8 (2016): 225-230.
- Henig, Robin Marantz. The monk in the garden: the lost and found genius of Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000.
This column was submitted by high school student Velan Mangai Sivakumar. Student STEM Columns are submitted by high school or advanced middle school students who wish to share their passion for STEM. Students interested in submitting a column should email us at email@example.com.Share this post!