The father of genetics couldn't get anyone to listen to him — but he got the last laugh

Gregor Mendel was disbelieved when he discovered genetics — until his work was rediscovered after he died

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published June 6, 2023 10:15AM (EDT)

Canceled stamp from Germany featuring genetic scientist Gregor Mendel (Getty/traveler1116)
Canceled stamp from Germany featuring genetic scientist Gregor Mendel (Getty/traveler1116)

The history of science is full of tales of unappreciated genius. Indeed, the founder of modern genetics was not fully appreciated for his ideas until decades after his death.

His name was Gregor Mendel — and he loved breeding pea plants.

"People that are in power, they can help you or block you."

Born Johann Mendel on July 20, 1822, the burgeoning scientific genius struggled financially for most of his childhood because he was the son of a poor farmer in the Austrian empire. Joining the Order of Saint Augustine, a mendicant order of the Catholic Church, Mendel was able to spend his life as a monk and therefore not have to worry about his livelihood. While this was a clever decision for someone who wished to spend much of his life studying science — monasteries, as de facto universities in the 19th century, often hosted important scientific innovators — it did not mean that Mendel was spared all future hardships. In 1850, for example, he failed one of the three examinations necessary to become a certified high school teacher. Mendel ultimately overcame this and other career setbacks, but at the end of the day, he was never appreciated for his contributions to science during his lifetime. When he died on January 6, 1884 of chronic nephritis and possible cardiovascular problems, he was regarded as a kindly and intelligent Augustinian friar and abbot of his monastery — but not much else.

Sixteen years passed before Mendel's true contributions to humanity were rediscovered. To understand the significance of that rediscovery, though, one must start by describing Mendel's historic experiments with peas. As he explained when he presented his historic paper "Experiments in Plant Hybridization" in 1865, Mendel had spent nine years testing 28,000 plants, most of them pea plants. He wanted to learn how to reliably breed specific types of peas, explaining that he hoped to come up with "a generally applicable law governing the formation and development of hybrids." It was never his intention to revolutionize science; in fact, both when he discussed his paper in lectures and when he published it in 1866, he presented his findings in humble terms. Perhaps for this reason, Mendel's fellow scientists generally dismissed his work as being merely about hybridization, failing to see its implications for understanding the laws of inheritance. Even scientist Charles Darwin, who discovered evolution, appears to have been unaware of Mendel's work during his lifetime, even though Mendel sent him a copy of his paper, which Darwin never opened. When Mendel died, he was well-respected and highly regarded by his family and friends, but was hardly considered to be a pioneering scientist.

Yet Mendel had pioneered new scientific theories. Specifically, he came up with three vital concepts that are known today as Mendel's laws of inheritance. First there is the law of dominance and uniformity, which holds that alleles (alternative forms of genes found at the same place on a chromosome and produced by mutation) can be either dominant or recessive, with organisms that have at least one dominant allele displaying that allele's traits. Next there is the law of segregation, which determined that gametes (the reproductive cells of animals and plants) contain segregated version of the alleles for each gene and, as a result, each gamete carries only one allele for every gene. Finally there is the law of independent assortment, which found that genes with different traits can segregate from each other independently while gametes are being formed.

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.

Mendel managed to be hailed as a scientific pioneer more than one-third of a century after he presented those concepts, and more than a decade-and-a-half after his death.

Fortunately for Mendel's legacy, three separate botanists working independently of each other wound up rediscovering his ideas and — in the year 1900 — they all published their concepts while crediting Mendel's paper for originating the theories. To this day it is unclear whether the botanists in question — Hugo de Vries, Carl Correns, and Erich con Tshermak — acted as they did out of altruism or because crediting Mendel with the idea neatly side-stepped any possible competition for credit among the three scientists. Thus Mendel managed to be hailed as a scientific pioneer more than one-third of a century after he presented those concepts, and more than a decade-and-a-half after his death.

Mendel is hardly alone in history when it comes to scientists who were unappreciated in their time. The field of biology alone is replete with examples of this happening. In 1847 Ignaz Semmelweis, a young doctor at an obstetrical clinic in Vienna General Hospital, figured out that mortality rates were unusually high at the maternity ward run by doctors (compared to the one run by midwifes) because doctors were delivering babies after working on corpses. Semmelweis' solution — that doctors wash their hands after working with corpses — seems like common sense today; at the time, however, Semmelweis was harassed and bullied by his peers, many of whom were offended at the notion that their hands could ever be unclean. His early identification of what Louis Pasteur would later recognize as germ theory went unrecognized in his lifetime.

By contrast, Dr. Katalin Karikó was recognized for her work during her lifetime. involve the creation of a synthetic single strand of an RNA molecule known as messenger RNA (or mRNA). While working as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century, Karikó came up with the idea of an mRNA vaccine, or a vaccine that injects a bespoke version of mRNA into the body which then infects human cells and trains them to produce proteins like those found in a given virus. Although Karikó's ideas were rejected by her peers for many years, by 2013 she had been hired by BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals to make those ideas into reality. That is why, when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in late 2019, scientists were able to develop effective vaccines using mRNA technology by the end of 2020.

Speaking with Salon at the time, Karikó offered wisdom that applies to anyone who — like Mendel and Semmelweis — has valid scientific observations that are not sufficiently appreciated at the time they are presented.

"People that are in power, they can help you or block you," Karikó told Salon. "And sometimes people select to make your life miserable. And now they cannot be happy with me because now they know that, 'Oh, you know, we had the confrontation and . . .' But I don't spend too much time on these things."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

MORE FROM Matthew Rozsa

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Deep Dive Genetics Gregor Mendel Pea Plants