Gregor Mendel

Planting the Seeds of Genetics
Simon Mawer
810 957 485
Abrams in association with The Field Museum, Chicago
Glued Hardcover
Number of pages: 
176 pages
Grade / Age level: 
Resource Type: 

Regarding the scientific life of Gregor Mendel, there’s not much to tell. He grew up desperately poor and sought the priesthood to escape the robata system of farming. After carrying out his now famous experiments, the significance of which not even the best scientific minds of the day could grasp, he became abbot of the St. Thomas friary, a position whose demands prevented further scientific endeavors.

Mawer tells Mendel’s story and gives the details, but only enough to give us a sense of Mendel the scientist. A biologist himself, Mawer elaborates about the experiments but he does not stop there. He takes the reader forward in time to when Mendel’s work is rediscovered, and traces the development of Genetics as a field of study to the present day. The book is as much a scientific account as it is biographical.

Many of the details from Mendel’s life Mawer takes from other biographers whose work focus exclusively and more extensively on his life, particularly Iltis. (Mawer does correct Iltis and just about everyone else by describing Mendel as a friar and not as a monk, which makes a whole lot more sense.) In this sense, the book is as much about Mendel’s discovery as it is about his life.

Mendel lived during the rise of Materialism throughout an increasingly unstable Europe not long after the French Revolution. By Mawer’s account, Mendel became a priest to escape poverty, ending up in a very pleasant and comfortable life living and teaching at St. Thomas Abbey in the present day Czech Republic. He portrays the abbey as very liberal politically and speaks little of any spirituality. We see very little of this side of Mendel in this book, and Mawer says there is little of it to be found in what is extant of his writings. (His personal papers were customarily burned by the brothers just after his burial.)

Something I found of particular interest is the story of the forty offprints of his manuscript "Experiments in Plant Hybridization" that Mendel sent out. Of these forty only seven have been recovered, the other thirty-three likely lost forever. As was typical, they were uncut when they were sent and so had to be cut open in order to read them; two of the seven copies found were uncut.

The oversized hardcover edition is very nice because of the large reproductions of naturalist drawings and the antique photographs of people, places, and scientific equipment. It makes an excellent supplement for high school students studying genetics because of the amount and level of the scientific and historical detail in it. Overall, "Gregor Mendel: Planting the Seeds of Genetics" is a fulfillment of Mendel’s words regarding his experiments shortly before his death, “My time will come.”

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