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The supportive environment which Gregor Mendel found on entering the Augustinian order at the Augustian Abbey in Old Brno in 1843, was a reflection of a series of historical circumstances. In the 1780s, a change in the Habsburg’s policy towards all of the Empire’s religious institutions had forced these to serve the State as well as the Church. Hence, members of monastic orders were sent to work in schools and hospitals. In 1807, an imperial order demanded that the Augustinians in Old Brno should take up the teaching of mathematics and biblical studies in the newly established Philosophy Institute and the Brno Theology College.
This meant that the Augustian Abbey in Old Brno, where most of the friars had received a good education, enjoyed a distinctively rich intellectual life [i]. There the friars could have access to a number of scientific instruments [i] a significant botanical collection [i], and a variety of didactic tools (such as one for demonstrating different varieties of wood [i]). The Abbey had an extensive and well-kept library rich in religious [i], scientific [i], and literary texts and at the disposal of the friars, who divided their time between their pastoral duties and their teaching and study. An 18th century catalogue of the library testifies that the abbey had long been a centre of learning [i]. Some of the books went back to the 16th century, and they included classical masterpieces, such as texts by Aretino, the Renaissance humanist, Valverde, the anatomist, and Goethe, the renowned German writer and poet.
Amongst the documents and objects to be found in the abbey are lists of seeds ordered by Mendel for the Abbey’s garden [i] and grafting tools [i]. The son of farmers, Mendel had shown an interest in natural sciences from an early age, and agriculture specifically features as one of the subjects on his certificate of religious study, [i] together with biblical and theological studies, and ancient languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic).
Agriculture [i] had in fact only recently been established as a scientific discipline in its own right at Edinburgh in Scotland. It was the learned naturalist Christian Carl André (1763-1831) who, in 1808, recommended setting up a chair of agricultural studies in Moravia. The Moravian Society for the Improvement of Agriculture, Natural Science and Knowledge of the Country (the Agricultural Society) had been inaugurated in 1806. The first professor of agriculture in Moravia was established at Olmouc in 1811, and the second in Brno in 1816. In 1825 the Brno chair of agriculture was taken up by F. Diebl (1770-1859), who was one of Abbot Napp’s closest associates, and the two sat on the committee of the Agricultural Society and of the Pomological and Aenological Association (later the Pomological Association) of which Napp was president.
Abbot Napp’s support of Mendel’s studies must therefore be seen within this context. Thanks to him, Mendel was able to enroll at the University of Vienna (1851-53), where, as his certificate of study testifies, he attended courses on plant physiology given by Franz Unger (1800-1870) and on experimental physics by Christian Doppler (1803-1853) [i], both crucial figures in Mendel’s scientific development. In Vienna, Mendel also acted as a demonstrator at the Institute of Physics. A link between the study of natural disciplines, such as botany and zoology, and physics had already been expressed by Andreas Baumgartner (1793-1865) [i], professor of Physics at the University of Vienna until 1864, who acted as examiner for Mendel in Brno in 1850. Baumgartner had been so impressed by Mendel, that he suggested to Abbot Napp that the young friar should be sent to the University of Vienna. Professor Baumgartner emphasised the importance of studying nature, not through random speculation but through experiments theoretically underpinned by mathematical models.
GREGOR JOHANN MENDEL (1822 – 1884)
Born on 20 July (baptised on 22 July) in Hyncice, northern Moravia (then Austrian Silesia) to farmers, Anton and Rosina.
Elementary school in Hyncice. In the autumn of 1833 Mendel moved to the Piarist school in Lipnik.
Gymnasium (grammar school) in Opava. Mendel helped pay his way by giving lessons to fellow students.
Institute of Philosophy in Olomouc. Mendel’s studies included mathematics, physics, philology, theoretical and practical philosophy and ethics.
Augustinian Abbey in Old Brno. Mendel joined the Abbey as a novice under Abbot C. F. Napp (1792-1867) and assumed the name Gregor. Napp and the friar F. M. Klacel (1808-1882) are both thought to have profoundly influenced Mendel’s development as a scientist.
Institute of Theology (Brno). In 1846 Mendel completed a course in agricultural studies, apple and wine growing.
Mendel is ordained priest.
Abbot Napp removed Mendel from his work in the parish on the grounds that it made him ill. He became a substitute teacher at the Gymnasium in Znojmo and at the Technical College in Brno.
University of Vienna. Mendel studied physics, mathematics and natural history and attended courses in “Experimental Physics” (Christian Doppler, 1803-1853), in “Anatomy and Physiology of Plants” (Franz Unger, 1800-1870), and in “Practical lessons in using the microscope”.
Construction of the glasshouse in the Abbey garden.
Realschule (secondary modern school), Brno. Mendel taught physics and natural history.
Experimental work on garden peas. Mendel carried out experiments in plant hybridisation in the Abbey garden, with particular attention to Pisum sativum. He spent two years selecting Pisum lines with constant characteristics.
Co-founder of the Natural Science Society in Brno.
Mendel reads the German translation of the second edition (1860) of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and makes notes in the margins.
First publication on his meteorological observations. Mendel continued with these until 1882.
Lectures on “Experiments in Plant Hybrids” at the February and March meetings of the Natural Science Society (Brno). In 1866, Mendel published his lecture, a work that was to establish him as “the father of genetics”. In the same year, he opened his correspondence with Carl Nägeli (1817-1891).
Mendel became abbot after Abbot Napp, who had died in 1867.
Publication of his experiments on Hieracium in Brno.
Construction of the bee house in the Abbey garden.
Mendel was awarded the Cross of the Royal and Imperial Order of Franz Joseph I.
Director of the Mortgage Bank of Moravia (Brno).
Mendel died on 6 January. He was buried three days later in the Central Cemetery in Brno. His obituary in the Gesellschaft zur Förderung des Ackerbaues, der Natur- und Landeskunde 1884, No. 1, said: “his experiments with plant hybrids opened a new era”.
The Mendel Museum wishes to acknowledge the kind assistance of Elisabeth Haring, Jirina Relichova and Vitezslav Orel in preparing this short biography.
V. Orel: Gregor Mendel the first geneticist. Oxford University Press (1996)
Mendel: Man and Mind
The Mathematics of Inheritance
The Enigma of Generation and the Rise of Cell
Mendel’s Experiments and Mendel’s Law
Gallery of Contemporary Art from May 2002
Gallery of Contemporary Art from July 2006