Gregor Mendel: Planting the Seeds of Genetics

  • Book, web site, video
  • 176 pages (book), 3 minutes (video)
  • Level: high school and above

Gregor Mendel was an Augustinian friar who founded the science of genetics. This book by Simon Mawer discusses Mendel’s life, life at his abbey, and the science and history of genetics. It was produced in association with the Field Museum in Chicago, which had an exhibit by the same name in 2006-2007. The web site associated with the book and exhibit is still available, as is a video from the Field Museum. (A Faith and Science entry for a related book on Mendel written for younger people is also available—click here).

Click here for a Google Books entry for Gregor Mendel: Planting the Seeds of Genetics. From the Google entry:

Considered one of the greatest scientists in history, Gregor Mendel was the first person to map the characteristics of a living things successive generations, thus forming the foundation of modern genetic science. In Gregor Mendel, distinguished novelist and biologist Simon Mawer outlines Mendel’s groundbreaking research and traces his intellectual legacy from his discoveries in the mid-19th century to the present.

In an engaging narrative enhanced by beautiful illustrations, Mawer details Mendels life and work, from his experimentation with garden peas through his subsequent findings about heredity and genetic traits. Mawer also highlights the scientific work built on Mendels breakthroughs, including the discovery of the DNA molecule by scientists Watson and Crick in the 1950s, the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, and the advances in genetics that continue today.

Click here for the Field Museum website for the Gregor Mendel: Planting the Seeds of Genetics exhibit. From the website:

In an abbey garden, Mendel planted the seeds for the science of heredity.

Born to poor tenant farmers in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Gregor Mendel joined the Abbey of St. Thomas in 1843, at age 21. The Abbey was a dream come true for a budding scientist. A vibrant center of research, its friars were active in the sciences, linguistics, literature and philosophy. The Abbey made it possible for Mendel to attend the University of Vienna and to read widely in a library that contained 30,000 books.

Mendel had diverse interests—astronomy, meteorology, physics, botany, and mathematics. He was one of the first scientists to use rigorous experiments and mathematical analysis as a means to study biology.

In 1856, Mendel launched an ambitious series of experiments with Pisum sativum—the garden pea. Eight years and approximately 28,000 pea plants later, Mendel published the results of his grand experiment. His methods were so advanced and his results so groundbreaking that no one realized how his discovery would eventually revolutionize science.

After being elected Abbot in 1868, Mendel had little time for science. He may have been disheartened by the lack of reaction to his pea paper, but he knew that his discovery was important. Not long before his death in 1884 he told a scientific colleague, “My time will come.”

Mendel was right. In 1900 three European botanists rediscovered his work and set off a scientific explosion. The field of genetics was born and Mendel is considered its founding father.