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Gregor Mendel, "the failures" of the Augustinian scientist that led to the discovery of a new science

We delve into the Abbey of St Thomas in Brno, and the Gregor Mendel Museum. With the support of the current community of Augustinian friars who preserve Mendel’s legacy, and with the invaluable input of former Prior General and great admirer of the father of "genetic inheritance", Fr Miguel Angel Orcasitas, we uncover the man behind the experiments: affable abbot, frustrated professor, and genius who broadened science.



The life, work and legacy of Gregor Mendel is still, 140 years after his death, an open book to which we can add pages of circumstances, twists and turns, and difficulties in his journey as man of religion and a scientist. His worldwide reputation as a researcher was based on his enormous scientific and multidisciplinary output. He was interested in many fields, applying the rigour of his method and the scrupulosity of his notes to subjects as diverse as meteorology, beekeeping, the measurement of underground water, the observation of sunspots, and the hybridisation of multiple plant species. However, it was with his experiments on peas that he achieved the recognition for which he is known today. 


But what do we really know of Gregor Mendel's life as abbot of Brno, of his pastoral work, of the many obstacles and serious setbacks that forged his character? 

Fr Miguel Angel Orcasitas, in a conference shared with the friars of the Abbey of St Thomas in Brno at the end of 2022, shows us the quality of this Augustinian who "in the face of disappointment did not let himself become discouraged, but knew how best to aim his efforts towards something useful at every moment."


This is his story. 


Economic problems and the call to vocation


After primary school in Heinzendorf, the village where he was born on 22 July 1822, Johann's parents were encouraged by the parish priest and teacher to continue his studies, because he showed a keen intelligence. Between the ages of 11 and 21, Mendel's academic record was exceptional, particularly in high school, where he achieved the highest marks in almost all subjects and classes. 


Financial difficulties caused by an accident at work involving his father meant that Mendel, from an early age, had to combine work with his studies. “An event-filled youth quickly exposed to him the serious side of life, and also taught him how to work,”  as Fr Orcasitas notes, "...it is possible that his lack of financial means influenced the decision to follow his priestly vocation within the Order, where he could continue his studies without the worry of daily sustenance." It was physics teacher Friedrich Franz, commissioned by the then abbot of the Augustinians in Brno, who offered his students the possibility of entering the monastery. Mendel and another candidate responded to the invitation, but Franz only recommended Mendel, whom he considered to be a young man of exceptional intellectual ability and "very solid character", his most extraordinary pupil.


Hospital problems and repeated academic failures


Shortly after his ordination to the priesthood in 1847, Mendel was assigned to parish ministry, and was also entrusted with the care of the hospital. His impressionable nature caused him to fall ill at the sight of the patients to whom he ministered. As a result, the abbot withdrew him from the hospital, directing him instead towards teaching. He began as a substitute teacher of Latin, Greek and German literature in Znojmo, outside the city of Brno, where he performed his duties "very satisfactorily".  


According to a legal requirement of the Ministry of Culture and Education, a full professor's degree was required to teach in state schools. Mendel sat the examination before the board in Vienna, but his training in physics, natural sciences and biology was still very poor and self-taught, and although he performed well in some of the physics tests, he failed the process. 


He returned to work as a substitute teacher, this time in natural history, but the abbot immediately sent him to Vienna for two courses of university studies in the subjects that were to be the object of his life’s work.



"Thanks to this first failure, Mendel learnt a great deal and received solid training with renowned scientists. At the monastery, Mendel had been familiar with the concerns and writings of those experimenting in hybridisation and the practical problems posed by heredity, but without the knowledge gained in Vienna and direct contact with the theorists of inheritance, it would have been near impossible for him to organise the impeccable methodology of his experiments, or to establish the synthesis between practice and theory that constitutes his formidable contribution to the problem of heredity," says Fr Orcasitas


After completing his training in Vienna, he returned to Brno and continued teaching as a substitute professor. He tried to sit the examination for a full professorship again, but was unable to finish because of physical weakness. The written exams were graded as magnificent, but in the middle of the oral exam he suffered a seizure, "probably epileptic", and had to return to the abbey empty-handed. 


The door is closed, and he will not try again. But by this time he was already working on his major experiment. He served, until appointed abbot, as a suitably qualified and well-regarded substitute teacher for fourteen years. "His behaviour has been, by all accounts, excellent. Full of a sincere and cordial love for youth, he knows how to maintain discipline by simple means. His speech was clear, logical and completely adapted to the young people's capacity to understand," according to the management of the Oberrealschule Imperial. As for his pupils, they said, "He was so happy and committed to his work; he always dealt with the subject matter in such a pleasant and attractive way that one was already looking forward to the next lesson."


"He was a man with a large head, a high forehead and golden spectacles, behind which you could see friendly, yet piercing, blue eyes. He wore almost always the same costume, the civilian dress of the monks: a top hat on his head, a long, black frock coat, most of the time too wide, and short trousers that were tucked into high, solid boots"

Mendel's priesthood and his scientific work


Growth within his religious calling went hand in hand with the development of his experimental vocation. There are hand-written outlines of homilies," says Fr Miguel Ángel, "which show us a priest who was doctrinally orthodox and religiously sensitive, who transmitted Catholic doctrine and morals with images taken from nature, in an engaging and accessible way.”


Never stopping, and always concerned for "the spiritual good of the men of the community", Fr Miguel Ángel does not hesitate to point out the various written source testimonies which speak of Mendel’s exemplary priestly and religious spirit; of his understanding, vocation of service and extreme generosity towards the poor, "whom he helped without making them feel the weight of the help". 


"It can be said that Mendel was the great scientist we know today because he was a friar in the Augustinian abbey in Brno.  

The setting of the abbey and its uniqueness - one of a kind in the Order, as there has never been nor is there today any other Augustinian abbey - was pivotal in the development of Fr Gregor in this double vocation. Part of the community of friars was dedicated to parish ministry while others taught classes and engaged in scientific research, usually in non-ecclesiastical subjects.  The fact that a good part of the Augustinian priests had their work outside the walls of the abbey, "led them to relate to the surrounding society and to be aware of the cultural and social concerns of their environment."

 

Confronted by the Bishop of Brno and reform of the community


"At that time, all the ancient orders were going through a period of decline at the time, from a religious perspective," says Fr Orcasitas. It was in this context that the Bohemian bishops asked the Holy See to carry out an apostolic visit. The Cardinal of Prague, Prince Schwarzenberg, commissioned the bishop of Brno, the Count of Schaaffgostsche, to visit the Augustinians in order to initiate their reform. The bishop expressed his dissatisfaction with the activity of the abbey, judging it to be excessively secular. In the bishop's opinion, it was "a society of men who, occupied in pastoral care and in the cultivation of letters, devote themselves to the performance of public functions … they wish to be useful, but they forget the essence of their regular state; while they collect plaudits through the cultivation of the sciences and their works, they disregard the religious rules, meditations and cloistered mortifications." 


Perhaps the bishop's suggestion to suppress the convent was not heeded because it was exaggerated and excessive. Although there were irregularities in the organisation of community life, such as "the scarcity of prayers or deficiencies in the common life which were detrimental to the vow of poverty", the community was not prepared to give up its scientific dedication and was willing to make amends for irregular behaviour, avoiding excess and organising the life of the friars with greater religious diligence. Mendel would later say, as abbot, that the dedication to science, in its various aspects, had always been a main purpose of the monastery, regardless of whether it needed reform. He himself, with a certain ascetic sensibility, renounced some of the privileges granted to him as abbot, in order to promote community life.




A legacy for history


He spent two years preparing the material for his best-known experiment, the one with peas, until he was sure that he was working with pure breeds. He handled more than 27,000 plants and patiently crossed a large number of them, both a thankless and visually exhausting job. When he discovered the mathematical relationship between the inherited traits, thanks to the breadth of his experiment, he summarised it in a 45-page publication, giving an account of his nine years' work. Only scientific rigour and personal conviction that he was reaching important conclusions can explain his thoroughness, method and patience. 


On 30 March 1868, at the age of 45, he was appointed abbot of the abbey by the unanimous vote of the community. Although he initially thought he would have more time for research because he had given up teaching, he soon discovered the incompatibility of science and bureaucracy. The abbot of Brno, a position for life of almost episcopal rank, was one of the city's great and good, and social commitments took up much of his time.


Shortly afterwards, he embarked on a lawsuit with the government that took away his peace and health. The liberal world reacted violently to the definitions of the First Vatican Council and to the general attitude of the papacy. In Austria, the government took advantage of this situation and tried to exert control over the Church by putting ecclesiastical appointments in the hands of the state and establishing a new fiscal policy. In 1874, on this latter point, heavy taxes were levied on monasteries in order to provide for the secular clergy. Mendel openly opposed this move, which deprived the monastery of a quarter of its income, calling it arbitrary and detrimental to property rights which, in his opinion, should be equal for all. He fought tenaciously and did not bend, despite further honours being bestowed on him as abbot, or the government's gestures of trust designed to win him over such as his appointment as president of the Moravian Mortgage Bank, or to "honourable" compromises that, by exception, exempted the abbey from payment, without changing the law or the thinking behind it. Mendel wanted the legal position rectified for everyone, not just his abbey and its assets. 


From the silence of the scientific community to a Nobel legacy 


Mendel died on 6 January 1884. 


He was fully convinced of the validity of his work, but had to live with the great disappointment in the silence with which his work was received by the scientific world. He was well ahead of his time, as it was 34 years after the publication of his results (and 16 years after his death) that the international scientific community finally recognised the importance of his discoveries. A few months before his death, he uttered a sentence that clearly reflected his own conviction:

"Although I have had to suffer many bitter moments in my life, I must gratefully acknowledge that good and pleasant things have prevailed. My experimental work has brought me much satisfaction, and I am convinced that, before long, the whole world will appreciate the results of my research.” 

Although he had to struggle with poverty, illness, academic failure and misunderstanding, and despite circumstances tempering his commitment on a number of occasions, he always emerged as a man of character, capable of directing his life in a useful and fruitful way for himself and for others. Only his position as abbot and the legal battles with the government made him lose capacity, serenity and time for his calm, patient and dogged scientific research, which characterised his whole life.


From Mendel’s essays, notes, experiments and conclusions, countless research groups, doctoral theses and two Nobel prizes have emerged, including those awarded in 2012 to Robert J. Lefkowitz and Brian K. Kobilka by the Swedish Academy for their studies on G-protein and its receptors.


Mendel," concludes Fr Orcasitas, "was an honest religious who demonstrated with his scientific dedication that came out of his religious vocation, that compatibility is possible between science and faith." 






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