In 1854 Gregor Mendel began the pea-plant experiments that would originate a new biological science in the twentieth century. In 2000, with the mapping of the human genome (the genetic instructions for making a human being), his work seemed destined to grow in importance in the twenty-first century. Ironically, Mendel’s accomplishments, whose significance became obvious to twentieth century scientists, were largely neglected in the nineteenth century, and this neglect and rediscovery have raised questions that biographers and historians of science have been wrestling with ever since: What did Mendel do? Why did he do it? Did he really understand what he had done? Why were his results so poorly received?
Robin Marantz Henig, a freelance writer specializing in science and medicine, thinks she has the answers to these questions. As a science journalist, she has worked for the magazinesBioScience and Human Behavior and has written six books, including A Dancing Matrix: How Science Confronts Emerging Viruses (1994), which won an award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Though not a trained historian of science, Henig claims that she can use the work of these scholars to solve the “enigma” of Mendel and tell his story in a way that scholars never have. She agrees with those scholars who feel that the myth of Mendel as a misunderstood genius needs to be debunked, but she also disagrees with those revisionists who reduce Mendel to a dabbler who stumbled into discoveries whose real meaning he failed to grasp. For Henig, the truth lies between these extremes. She sees Mendel as a creative gardener with a deep faith in science’s power to reveal the secrets of how plants propagate their traits. All her chapters have epigraphs from writers on gardening, and she believes that Mendel’s life is
primarily the story of a gardener, patiently tending his plants, collecting them, counting them, working out his ratios, and calmly, clearly explaining an amazing finding—then waiting for someone to understand what he was talking about.
To help her understand Mendel, Henig revisited the sites of his life and read all the primary and many of the secondary sources. Because the majority of Mendel’s papers have been lost or destroyed, she has been forced to speculate about what he was thinking and feeling at pivotal moments in his career. Such speculations are problematic, however, since what appear to her to be reasonable reconstructions of Mendel’s interior life may be unreasonable or even absurd to others, and indeed scholars as well as popularizers have come up with conflicting interpretations of his aims and analyses.
Henig structures her book in two “acts” separated by a sixteen-year interlude. Act One is her account of Mendel’s life and a contextualized explanation of his work. In Act Two, “Mendel Redux,” she shows how, in the twentieth century, Mendel’s accomplishments were rediscovered, reformulated, mythologized, revised, condemned, rehabilitated, and refurbished. Previous biographers have also dealt with Mendel’s “resurrection,” but generally as a modest epilogue to their treatment of his life, whereas Henig’s analysis of a rejuvenated Mendelism constitutes a substantial part of her book.
Act One begins not with Mendel’s birth and childhood but in the “glasshouse” of St. Thomas Monastery in Brünn, Austria (now Brno, Czech Republic), where he conducted his extensive experiments on the common garden pea. What is not widely known is that he actually began his scientific investigations of inheritance by breeding wild mice with albinos to see what color fur the hybrids would have, but the local bishop thought it inappropriate for a monk with a vow of chastity to be studying copulating rodents, so Mendel was required to shift from animal to plant breeding (the bishop apparently was ignorant of the sexuality of plants).
It is surprising that Henig, who speculates so freely about Mendel’s personality, says so little about her subject’s early years, because the time, place, culture, and conditions of his upbringing did much to shape his identity. An only son between an older and younger sister, Johann (his birth name) Mendel was born in Silesia, then part of the Habsburg Empire, in a region where German, not Czech, was the predominant language. His father was a peasant farmer and his mother was the daughter of a gardener, and they taught their son how to care for animals and graft fruit trees. Silesian culture was Roman Catholic, and priests played a significant role in Johann’s education. For example, the village priest, impressed by Johann’s intellectual abilities, advised his parents to send their son to an advanced school some sixteen miles away. Johann later traveled to a gymnasium (roughly equivalent to an American high school) in Troppau (Opava to the Czechs). After graduating, he moved to a philosophical institute at Olmütz (Olomouc in Czech) to complete his preparation for university studies. Courses were taught in Czech, a language that Johann had not yet mastered, and he was lonely and unhappy. According to his own account, anxieties over his future affected him so intensely that he became ill and had to return home to recover.
Following the advice of one of his Olomouc professors who had spent twenty years at St. Thomas Monastery, Mendel decided to become an Augustinian monk to liberate himself from a struggle for existence that he was finding increasingly unendurable. Though the culture of the monastery was predominantly Czech, several monks were, like Mendel, of German background. Besides, the monastery was economically prosperous because of its estates and it was therefore able to support its members, including the novice Gregor (Johann’s name in religion), in their various pursuits, both sacred and secular.
Because of her interest in Mendel’s scientific achievements, Henig says little about his religious life, but it is important to realize that Gregor loved his order, which traced its spiritual lineage back to Saint Augustine. The Augustinians pursued both the contemplative and the active life. With his fellow friars, Mendel engaged in penance, prayer, and good works. Indeed, after he completed his theological studies and was ordained a priest in 1847, his first position was chaplain to a parish served by the monastery. Unfortunately, his shy and sensitive...
(The entire section is 2616 words.)