A clear and engaging account of the life and times of the Moravian monk whose passion for numbers and painstaking work with pea plants laid the foundation for the modern science of genetics.
Science writer Henig (A Dancing Matrix, 1993, etc.) acknowledges at the start that conjecture and educated deduction were needed in telling Mendel’s story, for very little of his writing (three papers, seven letters, and a brief autobiography written when he was only 28) survives. However, Henig is not telling Mendel’s story in a vacuum. She depicts the intellectual milieu of 19th-century Europe, the beliefs and arguments about creation, spontaneous generation, and inheritance, and the storm of controversy that followed publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Mendel’s immediate world, an Augustinian monastery where teaching and research were emphasized, gave him the freedom to pursue scientific study in the fields that fascinated him: mathematics, botany, physics, and meteorology. Lacking records telling exactly how, when, in what order his botanical experiments were done, Henig pictures Mendel in his monastery garden, “tweezers in one pudgy hand and a camel’s hair paintbrush in the other,” moving slowly along his rows of pea plants, collecting pollen. While his cross-breeding experiments were meticulous, his 1865 report of his findings on heredity went largely unnoticed. Darwin never read the copy of Mendel’s paper he received, and the only scientist who did acknowledge it (Nageli, a German botanist) misinterpreted it—possibly intentionally and perhaps through jealousy. A widely read horticultural textbook published in 1881 did cite Mendel’s work, but it was not until 1900 (16 years after his death) that Mendel’s paper was noticed by three scientists working in three different countries. Henig deftly explores the circumstances surrounding the rediscovery of Mendel’s work and his subsequent enshrinement as an unappreciated genius and father of a new science.
Henig not only achieves her goal of making Mendel come alive as a “flawed but brilliant human being,” but provides a fascinating picture as well of a scientific age when luck and personalities—and not just brains—determined success.