A Visit to the Mendel Museum in Brno

Recently I went on a day trip to Brno, Czech Republic, to visit the Mendel Museum. This small museum is located in the original Augustinian abbey where Mendel lived and worked for most of his life. The museum was founded in 2007 in an effort to promote the legacy of this “humble genius”, who is considered the father of genetics. However, Mendel was known for much more than his experiments in plant breeding. For several years he was the actual Abbot of the monastery, and also conducted many experiments in for example meteorology and bee keeping, about which he published as well.

A portrait of Mendel as Abbot, on display in the museum.
A portrait of Mendel as Abbot, on display in the museum.

Johann Mendel was born on 20 July 1822 in Heinzendorf, Silesia, then part of the Austrian Empire (currently Hynčice, Czech Republic). His parents were German peasants, and Johann was expected to follow his father’s footsteps. However, already at a young age he showed an interest and talent in learning, and was allowed to attend several schools during his youth.

In 1843, at the age of 21, he was admitted to the Augustinian abbey in Old Brno, under Abbot Napp. On that occasion he adopted the name Gregor, and was able to further his studies. Thanks to financial support and a recommendation from Abbot Napp, Mendel was even able to attend the University of Vienna during 1851-1853, where he studied mathematics, physics, and natural sciences. These years of university studies heavily influenced his own later scientific work.

The Augustinian abbey in Brno where Mendel lived and worked.
The Augustinian abbey in Brno where Mendel lived and worked.

After finishing his studies, Mendel returned to the abbey and also became a teacher at a secondary school in Brno. It was during this time, between 1854 and 1864, that Mendel performed his now-famous experiments on crossbreeding pea plants.

In early 1865, Mendel presented two lectures about his experiments and mathematical results to the Natural History Society in Brno. A year later, his classic paper Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden (Experiments with plant hybrids) was published in the proceedings of that society. But despite those lectures and publication, his results remained largely uncomprehended and ignored.

Left: The first page of Mendel's classic paper on experiments with plant hybrids. Right: Another page from his manuscript listing some of his experimental results.
Left: The first page of Mendel’s classic paper on experiments with plant hybrids. Right: Another page from his manuscript listing some of his experimental results.

On 30 March 1868, Mendel was elected Abbot of the Augustinian abbey, after his predecessor and mentor Abbot Napp had died the year before. Next to this demanding position, he was (or later became) also a member of the Meteorology Society, Pomology Society, Natural History Society, and Zoology and Botanic Society, among others. Besides his well-known experiments in plant crossbreeding, he also conducted experiments in (and published about) bee keeping, fruit tree cultivation, and meteorology.

Gregor Johann Mendel died on 6 January 1884, at the age of 62, from a kidney infection. He was buried in the central cemetery of Brno.

A statue of Gregor Mendel, in the courtyard of his abbey in Brno.
A statue of Gregor Mendel, in the courtyard of his abbey in Brno.

It was not until the spring of 1900 that Mendel’s work on crossbreeding and his “laws” of inheritance were rediscovered, when three scientists (Hugo de Vries, Carl Correns, and Erich von Tschermak) independently published about them. But this time Mendel’s results were correctly understood and rightfully recognized, and eventually became the basis of the modern (and mathematical) theory of genetics.

The Mendel museum in Brno presents an overview of Mendel’s life and work, in the original abbey where he spent most of his time and where he conducted his experiments. The abbey itself is a 20min walk from Brno central station, which can be reached with direct connections from either Prague (2.5hrs) or Vienna (1.5hrs). The old town of Brno itself, and the castle Špilberk on top of the hill in between the old town and the abbey, are also worth a visit.

From humble beginnings to the father of genetics. All that with the help of some common garden peas…

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