Milestones of Innovation 2: Gregor Mendel on Heredity, 1865

Today, as 150 years ago, for an innovation to happen, the idea it rests on must be understood by the people who hear it.

On the 8th of February and the 8th of March 1865, the Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel told his local natural science society about a decade of results from thousands of cross-breeding experiments with varieties of the pea plant Pisum sativum in his monastery garden in Brno (in what is now the Czech Republic). Most likely influenced by one of his teachers, he had sought a “generally applicable law of formation and development of hybrids” in order to solve “a question about the developmental history of organic forms.” With what one successor called “his genius for simplification,” Mendel concentrated on easily scored pairs of opposite traits such as tall or dwarf, and discovered dominant and recessive traits. These hereditary traits, he concluded, reside in units that he called elements or characters or factors and we call genes.

His audience, most likely including local fruit tree and sheep breeders, heard him respectfully but did not understand that they were in at the beginning of what became genetics. When the lectures were published the following year and Mendel sent them to more than a score of biologists across Europe, the recipients reacted with almost complete silence. Only 35 years later, long after his death, were his ideas taken up by plant breeders, cited as revolutionary, and used as foundation stones for a new science of genetics, leading ultimately to today’s fantastically complicated and risky biotechnology industry.

Mendel, the learned son of a hard-working peasant, was apparently untroubled by the lack of reaction. He turned to additional experiments on heredity and meteorological observations, and immersed himself in the business of the monastery he now headed until his death in 1884. He told a fellow monk, “Though I have had to live through many bitter moments in my life, I must admit with gratitude that the beautiful and good prevailed. My scientific work brought me much satisfaction, and I am sure it will soon be recognized by the whole world.”

But even if he labored in provincial obscurity, the lack of attention to the claim of durable elements of heredity is a bit surprising. The sciences of life were growing, spurred by the struggle to alleviate diseases, grow more food, and manage forests scientifically. Plant breeders were debating if hybrids like those Mendel studied were in reality new species. It was only 25 years since the cell had been recognized as the basic unit of all living creatures, and only 20 since physicians began using anesthetics in surgery. In 1851, a medical officer in London, John Snow, had shut down a water-supply in one part of London because of a statistical association with cholera. Also in the 1850s, Pasteur entered the world of microbiology by studying fermentation. In Vienna, Semmelweiss was demanding antiseptic conditions in maternity wards. In England, Lister was insisting that surgeons use sterilizing chemicals in operating rooms. Darwin’s ideas about the evolution of species, first published in 1859, were startling the world.

Four years after Mendel’s announcement, the young Swiss physician Friedrich Miescher found a chemical called DNA. The chemical lay in the nuclei of cells, evidently the seat of hereditary factors. Pasteur’s studies led on to immense practical impacts on preservation of milk and wine, and fighting infections of plants, animals, and people. Koch found the organisms responsible for tuberculosis, anthrax, and cholera.

In 1900, plant breeding specialists like Hugo De Vries in Holland, Carl Correns in Germany, and William Bateson in England came across Mendel’s paper and appreciated its importance. In a few years, Mendel’s discoveries were applied to hereditary human diseases and the exploitation of hybrid corn for higher yields. The very word, genetics, was invented, and geneticists at Columbia University began to use Drosophila fruit flies to map the physical placement of genes along what was, conceptually, a long string. The ways to the worlds of DNA and RNA were opening.

[Editor’s Note: This is the second of an envisioned series of notes about major anniversaries in innovation and what they teach us. You’re invited to suggest other milestones of innovation for in the Xconomy Forum. Example: This year will mark the 150th anniversary of Alexander Holley’s pilot plant in Troy, New York, for making steel by the Bessemer process.]

Further reading:

Robin Marantz Henig, The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics, Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Robert Olby, “Mendel, Johann Gregor.” Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Scribners, 2008. (February 3, 2015).

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