Science in Christian Perspective




Raymond J. Seeger
(NSF Retired)
4507 Wetherill Road
Bethesda, Maryland 20816

From: JASA 37 (December 1985): 233-234.

Gregor Johann Mendel (1822-1884) was born of German peasant stock in Heinzendorf, Silesia. His teacher in the village school recognized his exceptional talent and recommended a higher school at Leipnik, thirteen miles away. At twelve he entered the High School at Troppau, twenty miles distant, where the headmaster was an Augustinian from the monastery in Altbrunn (Brunn was the capital of Moravia). Owing to the poverty of his family, he faced financial problems resulting in illness, but did manage to complete the six-year course. He then attended the Philosophical Institute affiliated with Olmatz University, where he did some private tutoring. His weakest subject was philosophy; he did not take history or natural science. His physics teacher, however, recommended this poor, Catholic youth to the Altbriunn monastery, where he became a novice at twenty-one. The following year he began a four-year course at the Brunn Theological College. Through his diligence, within a month a year later, he was made subdeacon, deacon, and finally priest. At twenty-six he received a certificate for the completion of his theological training.

The year following he was given an additional duty (twenty hours per week) as Deputy High School teacher at Znaim, but was later released from parish responsibilities owing to illness. Although he failed to pass the state qualifying examination for teacher, at twenty-nine he was made a supply teacher in the Brann Technical High School. The next year he entered the University of Vienna as an extraordinary student (here he had Christian J. Doppler [18031853] for physics); he became a life-long member of the Zoological and Botanical Society of Vienna. At thirty-one he returned to be a supply teacher for physics and natural history at the Briinn Modern School. Three years later he again attempted the qualifying examination-he never passed it.

His elementary school teacher had encouraged the farm boys with information about fruit growing and bee keeping. Mendel liked to grow flowers and became interested in horticulture. (Later he had a fuchsia emblem on his abbot's arms.) An amateur, he taught himself botany while he was a novice. From 1856 to 1876 he investigated the cross-fertilization of edible peas.

At forty-six, however, he was unexpectedly elected prelate, a mitred abbot, by his fellow monks. The management of the wealthy estate, which was a center for the spiritual and intellectual life of the community, left little time for the leisure or repose indispensable for a life of research. He supported music in BrUnn (he himself was not musical); he initiated a Fire Brigade in Heinzendorf. He had to travel much. In 1870 he was Vice-Chairman of the BrUnn Society for the Study of Natural Science, which he had helped to found eight years earlier. At forty-eight he was elected to the National Committee of Agriculture. Unfortunately, in 1874 he became concerned about a national tax being imposed on all monastic property for support of religious (Catholic) activities; he believed it was unconstitutional. For ten years he waged a wearisome and futile fight-won by the state after his death at sixty-one. He was laid to rest in the monastery burial ground.

Mendel was certainly not a recluse, religious or scientific. He was apparently an exceptionally good teacher, a friend rather than a master. He had keen interest in his work, tenacity and great patience. Modest and reserved, he had a tranquil demeanor and a noble spirit; he was considerate and kind. He was fond of animals and birds. Good-natured, he had a sense of humor. Not sentimental or romantic, he had a practical mind; he was shrewd but just. On occasions he gave private lessons free. Upon being made abbot he distributed his last month's teaching salary among the three poorest boys in his class. He helped defray the medical schooling of his two nephews.

He was basically a naturalist; he had his own microscope and telescope (he observed and recorded sun-spots regularly). He noted weather phenomena daily over a period of time; i.e., pressure, temperature including maximum and minimum, humidity, and precipitation. He watched a tornado carefully. At thirty-four he began his study of hybrid peas in the monastery garden. He spent two years reducing thirtyfour different kinds to twenty-two pure strains; e.g., white, violet; tall, dwarf (1/ 5). What made his work so productive was the simplicity of his approach: he restricted his investigations to one or a few peas with strongly contrasting characters, e.g., round and yellow versus wrinkled and green; in the case of each successive generation he observed the total number; he followed each individual separately. Thus he was able to formulate his so-called laws: the first with respect to the dissociation of characters (dominant and recessive), the second with regard to the possibility of all combinations of any assortment of characters. After eight years of precise and neutral observations Mendel reported his findings in 1865 to the local Society for the Study of Natural Science, which published them in its Proceedings the following year. It was probably little appreciated by the audience and certainly not at all understood by the scientific world, which learned of it only through the 120 journal exchanges of the Society. In view of the excitement over Darwin's variability of species, little attention was paid to the complementary aspect, viz., the constancy of characters and of hereditary factors involved in such changes. Mendel tried other plants, particularly hieracuim, his favorite-unsuccessful because of its abnormal reproduction. His last experiments were done in 1876.

It was not until 1900 that several scientists realized the significance of his work; notably, the Frenchman Hugo de Vries (1845-1933), the German Carl Corens (1864-1933), and the Austrian Erich von Tschermak (1871-1962). The spreading of Mendelism was the result of the British William Bateson (1861-1926), who was largely responsible for the 19 10 erection of the Charlemont statue in the Brfinn Klosterplatz by "the friends of science" to the "Investigator P. Gregor Mendel."

There was little odor of sanctity in the scientific writings or personal letters of Mendel. He kept his faith and his science separate in watertight compartments-probably owing to his own lack of philosophical interest per se.

This is the seventeenth in a series on religious scientists.