Mendel’s Manuscript Mess

1 06 2010
Image of Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) the father of modern genetics

Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) the father of modern genetics

One of the most important manuscripts in modern science, long thought lost, has resurfaced in the middle of an ownership dispute.

The original manuscript of Gregor Mendel’s pea-breeding experiments, that allowed him to deduce the laws of heredity, thereby laying the foundations of modern genetics, has turned up in Germany after being missing for more than 50 years.

At the time it was published, Mendel was an Augustinian monk in the Abbey of St. Thomas, in the Austro-Hungarian city of Brünn, now Brno in the Czech Republic.

The importance of Mendel’s work was unrecognized by the international scientific community until 1900 (16 years after Mendel’s death).  The was due mostly to the fact that it was published in the rather obscure Journal of the Brünn Natural History Society.

Once discovered, however, it quickly became one of the most important articles in modern science.  This was because it was the first publised article to describe in detail how genetics operated, even though Mendel (and the rest of the world for that matter) knew nothing about DNA or other elements of genetics.  Indeed, it was Mendel’s paper that set the world on the road to discovering the whole of genetic theory.  In addition, Mendel’s experiment is often cited as one of the most elegant scientific experiments in history.

In an article published on Monday (June 31) in The New York Times, writer Nicholas Wade describes what happened to the orignal manuscript after it was published 1865.  According to Wade, the manuscript, the title of which translates into English as Experiments on Plant Hybridization, has been through a lot in the last 145 years.  It languished in the Brünn Natural History Society’s library until 1911, when it was discarded.  Saved from the trash by a local high school teacher, it was returned to the society’s files.  During World War II, a German botany professor (apparently part of the occupying force, who was in chage of the library) keep it in his briefcase.  Afterward, when Soviet forces occupied the area, it disappeared and was presumed destroyed.  Only in 1988 did it resurace, in the hands of a descendent of Mendel’s, who is also an Augustinian monk.  Since then, there have been competing claims to its ownership, with the monk’s order threatening to throw him out and even the German government getting involved.

For the complete story and the details of  the ownership controversy, please see the NY Times article, here.

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