Re-discovering The Monk from the Garden

My elementary school education in part was in a school named after St. Augustine.

The teaching and writing of Augustine, the Augustinian Rule, defined the orders chirasm and ethos, which led them to build communities founded on mutual affection and intellectual advancement.

Little did I realize then, the historical import of the Augustinian lineage. A lineage which gave us two key inflection points in human history.

The first was Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation some 500 years ago. The Protestant reforms he initiated, unleashed forces that brought an end to the Middle Ages and ushered in the modern era. Luther’s influence reverberates powerfully through the ages such that during a visit to Germany in 1934, Rev. Michael King Sr. chose to change both his and his son’s name to Martin Luther King. MLK Jr., the namesake of the great German reformer, who would later catalyze the American civil rights movement.

However, another Augustinian monk, working obscurely in a remote Monrovian monastery, some 350 years after Martin Luther lived, unleashed another revolutionary idea whose influence will surely outlast us all.

Here is his story.

At a time when the United States was in the throes of the bloody Civil War (The Reaper Case: A Prelude to Greatness to Come?), this 42-year old monk in far way Austria, was nervously getting ready to present his research at the Brunn Society for Natural Science in Austria (March 8th, 1865).

His study on crossbreeding peas across generations was a culmination of a life’s struggle for a monk. A monk with a terrible case of test anxiety which prevented him from becoming a high school teacher. His examiner wrote as he failed- “he lacks insight and the requisite clarity of knowledge”. His test anxiety was so great that on his second attempt, he started just one question and gave up. He would take to his bed for long periods of time when stressed. While his work was appreciated for its thoroughness, no one grasped its importance.

This Augustinian monk- Gregor Mendel.

Mendel’s brilliance goes unrecognized. His work was simply too ahead of its time and he passed into scientific obscurity. Two years after Mendel had produced his paper he was elected abbot of his monastery and his work lay unrecognized for about 34 years. For much of the remainder of his life, Mendel devoted himself to the duties of the monastery.

This unrecognized priest, in his lifetime was fond of saying to his friends, “Meine zeit wind shon kommen”- “My time will come”

Soon after his death in 1884, all his personal and scientific papers were burnt in a huge bonfire in the monastery courtyard at the very spot where his greenhouse had once stood. Not much was left of his detailed and laborious work.

Here is the story of this re-discovery. In the words of his biographer- Robin Marantz Henig

Spring 1900

A blue locomotive of the Great Eastern Railway streaked through the countryside of Cambridgeshire. To a farmer nearby, the train’s cars was a rumble of teak and steel plowing through his fields, where seedlings of barley, wheat, and oats etched their own green tracks in the springtime loam. It was the 8th of May, 1900, and the earth, like the new century itself (1905: Annus Mirabilis), pulsed with possibilities.

Among the train’s passengers was William Bateson, a don at St. John’s College, Cambridge- one of the leading botanists of his time, and soon to be the founder of the Genetics Society. He had just turned forty, and was one of Britain’s chief combatants in the controversy over evolution and the theory of natural selection, still the source of strident debate more than forty years after Charles Darwin first proposed it.

He was traveling to the hallowed halls of the Royal Horticultural Society’s headquarters in Westminster to present a lecture entitled for the Society’s second international conference on plant hybridization. Hybridization, was a hot and exciting topic of its times as professional and amateur plant breeders of the 19th century were crossing all kinds of plants together in the search for useful, bigger, more beautiful, or simply weird varieties.

He had planned to focus on the work of Hugo De Vries, the great Dutch botanist whose new “mutation theory” could account for the large-scale variations that Bateson believed were necessary to propel Darwin’s natural selection, the underlying mechanism of evolution.

Out the windows of Bateson’s velvet-and-leather compartment were mazes of hedgerows to the left, a pretty little river to the right. A tan stucco pub, looming beyond a hillock just past Harlowtown, marked roughly the halfway point on the familiar trip from Cambridge to London.

As he ploughed through a collection of old papers in preparation for his talk he came across for the first time Mendel paper that detailed the results of a number of hybridization experiments with pea plants he did some 35 years back. According to the legend that has persisted for a full century, Bateson spent most of that train ride immersed in this paper. When Bateson boarded in Cambridge, he had no idea that in the next sixty minutes he would read a paper that would change the course not only of his own career, but of mankind’s understanding of its place in the great cacophony of nature.

What brought Bateson to that journal article on the morning of May 8, 1900 was the work of three other scientists, one of them the subject of his lecture that very afternoon. All three had cited Mendel’s forgotten paper almost simultaneously in their own separate publications. Uncannily, like a field of oat stalks that somehow know to erupt in unison, all three articles had appeared within two months of each other, during the same strange spring of 1900.

Bateson found the results electrifying. The article (http://www.esp.org/foundations/genetics/classical/gm-65.pdf), described the elegant botanical experiments Mendel conducted in a modest monastery garden in the old Hapsburg empire of Austria. Mendel had painstakingly crossed and back-crossed pollen and egg cells from the common pea plant to reach a better understanding of inheritance. After working on peas and other plant species for seven long years, he recorded and analyzed his findings in a two-part lecture delivered in 1865. That lecture was published as a forty-four-page journal article – and then was all but ignored for the rest of Mendel’s life. Between 1856 and 1863 Mendel patiently cultivated and tested at least 28 000 pea plants, carefully analyzing seven pairs of seeds for comparison, such as the shape of seed, the colour of seed, tall stemmed and short-stemmed and tall plants and short plants. Mendel worked on this for several years, carefully self-pollinating and wrapping each individual plant to prevent accidental pollination by insects. He collected the seeds produced by the plants and studied the offspring of these seeds observing that some plants bred true and others not. By the time Mendel was done with this succession of crosses, recrosses, and backcrosses, he must have counted a total of more than 10,000 plants, 40,000 blossoms, and a staggering 300,000 peas.” Mendel had approached the problem as a mathematician, understanding that small numbers can fluctuate and that if he was to uncover laws governing inheritance, he would need to repeat his experiments many times.

As he read, Bateson realized that what he was trying to do in his own experiments was almost precisely what Mendel had already done thirty- five years before. He was both shocked and elated. As his wife put it, using a metaphor that prettily evoked Mendel’s garden, it was as though, “with a very long line to hoe, one suddenly finds a great part of it already done by someone else. One is unexpectedly free to get on with other jobs.”

By the time the Great Eastern Railway train pulled into Liverpool Street, Bateson had completely rewritten his lecture to incorporate a presentation of Mendel’s work. Bateson was suddenly more interested in describing the work of this unknown monk, whose findings resonated so beautifully across the span of thirty- five years and the eight hundred miles separating London from the hilly recesses of southern Moravia. Settling into a carriage, Bateson began to mull over his opening lines. How should he introduce this forgotten genius to the English-speaking world?

In a drafty space in Drill Hall situated along the curving street known as Buckingham Gate, Bateson gave the lecture that for the rest of his life would demarcate a turning point in his evolution as a scientist. “An exact determination of the laws of heredity will probably work more change in man’s outlook of the world, and in his power over nature, than any other advance in natural knowledge that can be foreseen,” he began. “There is no doubt whatever that these laws can be determined.”

Bateson spoke for more than an hour irrevocably aligning himself with the legacy of Gregor Mendel. The hushed audience at the RHS meeting in Vincent Square were the first people in Britain to hear of Mendel and his peas. Yet, confusingly for Bateson, these groundbreaking ideas met with stony silence as people tried to figure out why such old, boring work would be presented with such excitement. The same was true when Bateson nudged Francis Galton into reading Mendel’s paper, in case he’d missed it, remarking that “Mendel’s work seems to me one of the most remarkable investigations yet made on heredity, and it is extraordinary that it should have got forgotten.” Just like Bateson’s audience of bored horticulturalists, Galton didn’t bother replying.

Within a few more years, Bateson saw how far the sweep of Mendel’s contribution extended. He made a pilgrimage to Brünn, the town where Mendel lived and worked; had Mendel’s paper translated into English; coined the word genetics; and became the chief apostle of a new scientific discipline that represented the very apotheosis of the twentieth century. Even so, Bateson arranged for the RHS to publish an English translation of Mendel’s original German manuscript, which caused a bit of a stir and prompted him to write a follow-up book entitled ‘Principles of Heredity: A defence’ in 1902.

Gradually, more and more pieces of the puzzle of inheritance began to fall into place, and scientists started to see that actually, maybe this Mendel fellow had been right after all. By the time of the Third International Hybridization Conference, held by the RHS in 1906, Bateson was a full-blown scientific rock star where the he used the term Genetics for the very first time to describe new field of inheritance, which its disciples were struggling to describe, announcing that, ‘To meet this difficulty I suggest for the consideration of this Congress, the term Genetics’ – the first time the term had been used. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Mendel- From the Garden to the Genome

While Mendel was completing his work, Darwin published his monumental treatise on evolution- the Origin of the Species in 1859. Despite its tremendous success, Darwin came to regard The Origin of Species as an incomplete explanation of his theory of evolution. Darwin did not address the question of how the variety, on which natural selection acts, arises in the first place.

Even though Darwin and Mendels were contemporaries, Darwin never read Mendel’s research in his lifetime and thus missed out on the opportunity to provide the basis for his theory in Mendel’s work. Mendel in contrast knew of Darwin’s work—his German copy of Origin was sprinkled with handwritten notes—but there’s no evidence that Mendel realized that his units of inheritance carried the variation upon which Darwinian selection acted. The interesting thing is that Mendel had both pieces of the puzzle in his hands, but he never put it together. He never once said, ‘Ah hah, I’ve got the answer to Darwin’s problem.'”

The path that Mendel first took in a small monastery in Austria, to our current understanding of the field of genetics was littered by many discoveries along the way. Thomas Hunt Morgan, working with the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster at Columbia University (1910), showed that genes, the word given for the unit of inheritance discovered by Mendel, reside on chromosomes that could be visualized in a microscope. And it wasn’t until 1944 that three scientists working on bacteria at Rockefeller University, Oswald Avery, Colin Munro MacLeod, and Maclyn McCarty, demonstrated convincingly that genes are composed of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA. It was later, in 1953, that Darwin’s and Mendel’s explanations were fully completed, when Francis Crick, James Watson, and Rosalind Franklin published the structure of DNA, which explained the mechanism of how genes are copied and inherited. His fingerprints are evident as we go from the discovery of the DNA, decoding of the human genome, and our quest to find cures for genetic diseases now and in the future.

On the dark side, barely thirty years after the word “genetics” was coined, Adolf Hitler, born 235 miles from Gregor Mendel’s monastery, was coalescing a new Nazi party and masterminding a massive genocide program that would be his “final solution.”

What set Mendel apart from his predecessors was the systematic and quantitative way he went about tackling the principles of inheritance. His biographer mentions that “Mendel was a situational monk. Though a monk, religion was not his true calling. He was a man who could not figure out any other way to get an education. His true calling was really for knowledge.”

Mendel’s work laid the foundation for a scientific revolution that continues to this day. It is the story of a gentle revolutionary who was born a generation too soon.

He is our Father of Modern Genetics.

At least 3550 single gene traits – referred to as Mendelian traits in honor of the founder – have been catalogued in a database called Mendelian Inheritance in Man (www.omim.org).

Mendel’s Experiment Results- F1 Progeny
Mendel’s Experiment Results- F2 Progeny (From Dr. Tilghman’s web writing)
Shirley Tilghman: President emerita of Princeton University

Reference:

https://explorebiology.org/collections/genetics/the-laws-of-inheritance:-a-journey-from-mendel%E2%80%99s-abbey-to-iceland

http://movies2.nytimes.com/books/first/h/henig-monk.html

Mendels original paper-

The Gardner of God- A movie by Christopher Lambert

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