Austrian Natural Scientist 1822-1884
Gregor Mendel elucidated the theory of particulate inheritance, which forms the basis of the current understanding of genes as the hereditary material. Born in Heinzendorf, Austria, in 1822, Johann Gregor Mendel was the fourth of five children in a family of farmers. He attended the primary school in a neighboring village, which taught elementary subjects as well as the natural sciences. Mendel showed superior abilities, and in 1833, at the advice of his teacher, his parents sent him to the secondary school in Leipnik, then to the gymnasium in Troppau. There he attempted to support himself by private tutoring, but his lack of the necessary financial support made the years that Mendel spent in school extremely stressful for him. His younger sister gave him part of her dowry and, in 1840, he enrolled in the University of Olmutz, where he studied physics, philosophy, and mathematics. In 1843 he was admitted into the Augustinian monastery in Brno, where he stayed for almost two decades. Originally, Mendel was not interested in religious life, but joining the monastery freed him from the financial concerns that plagued him and allowed him to pursue his interests in the natural sciences.
Under the leadership of its abbot, F. C. Napp (1792-1867), the monastery in Brno integrated higher learning and agriculture by arranging for monks to teach natural sciences at the Philosophical Institute. Napp encouraged Matthew Klacel to conduct investigations of variation and heredity on the garden's plants. Klacel, a philosopher by training, integrated natural history and Hegelian philosophy to formulate a theory of gradual development. This work eventually led to his dismissal, and he immigrated to the United States. Mendel was put in charge of the garden after Klacel's departure.
From 1844 through 1848 Mendel took theological training as well as agricultural courses at the Philosophical Institute, where he learned about artificial pollination as a method for plant improvement. After he finished his theological studies, Mendel served a brief and unsuccessful stint as parish chaplain before he was sent to a grammar school in southern Moravia as a substitute teacher. His success as a teacher qualified him for the university examination for teachers of natural sciences, which he failed because of his lack of formal education in zoology and geology. To prepare himself to retake the test, he went to the University of Vienna, where he enrolled in courses in various natural sciences and was introduced to botanical experimentation. After completing his university training he returned to Brno and was appointed substitute teacher of physics and natural history at the Brno technical school.
Mendel was an excellent teacher, and he often taught large classes. In 1856 he began botanical experiments with peas (Pisum), using artificial pollination to create hybrids. Hoping to continue his education, he once again took the university examination, but failed and suffered an emotional and physical breakdown. His second failure spelled the end of his career as a student, but he remained a substitute teacher until 1868, when he was elected abbot of the monastery. Mendel stayed in Brno, serving the monastery, performing botanical experiments, and collecting meteorological information until he died of kidney failure in 1884. At the time of his death, he was well
known for his liberal views and his conflict with secular authorities over the setting aside of monastery land; at this time, only the local fruit growers knew him for his botanical research.
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