Brno marks anniversary of founder of modern genetics

Johann Gregor Mendel

The Moravian city of Brno has been marking a double anniversary this week: 183 years since the birth of the founder of modern genetics Gregor Mendel, and 150 years since his discovery that led to uncovering the science behind heredity. St. Thomas’s Abbey in Brno’s Old Town – in whose garden Mendel made his famous discoveries growing peas, and which today houses the Mendel Museum – hosted the celebrations on Monday, including an audiovisual show created by award-winning American “biomedical animator” Drew Berry, backed by music from Czech-based composer Duncan Hendy, and performed by the Brno Philharmonic. I spoke with Ondřej Dostál, director of the Mendel Museum, and asked him to sum up Mendel’s life and work:

Johann Gregor Mendel
“He was born in Silesia, in the small village of Hynčice in 1822. He studied at grammar school there, then went to elementary school in Opava, and then to the Philosophical Institute in Olomouc. After that, he decided to become a member of the Augustinian Order, and the Augustinians invited him to go to the Order’s chapter in Brno. Mendel came to the city when he was 21.”

How did Mendel become interested in genetics, or heredity, or growing plants and discovering their characteristics?

“He started as a friar in the Old Brno Monastery, and ended up working in the St. Anne’s Hospital. The abbot C.F. Napp decided to send Mendel to undertake some studies, and he begin serving as a teacher. Mendel started at St. Thomas’s Abbey researching peas after coming back from Vienna, where he studied at the University of Vienna.”

So what was Mendel looking for? Because he obviously wasn’t looking to discover genetics. What was he doing with those peas?

Audiovisual show by Drew Berry, photo: CTK
“He wanted to discover the rules of inheritance. He wanted to know for his gardener, and for the gardeners in Brno, because he wanted to learn how to improve fruit tree yields, and grow better flowers in the abbey gardens.”

And what he discovered wasn’t recognized as being any kind of breakthrough until after Mendel’s death, is that correct?

“Yes. He gave a lecture on his research in 1865 to a meeting of the Natural History Society in Brno. In 1866 he published his work in the journal of this society. But the scientists in Brno, and the journal’s readers didn’t understand Mendel’s ideas. And his work was rediscovered at the start of the 20th century, by three separate scientists around the world, who all identified his key role as the father and founder of genetics.”

The city of Brno has just been celebrating the double anniversary related to Mendel. Artist Drew Berry presented an audiovisual show. So can you briefly describe some of the events that have been happening.

Audiovisual show by Drew Berry, photo: CTK
“We wanted to celebrate Mendel’s work globally and internationally. So we prepared special concerts featuring famous Czech music groups, and also featuring the animation of Drew Berry with the sound of composer Duncan Hendy. We wanted to show with the animation projected onto the abbey’s walls how Mendel worked and how he discovered the laws of inheritance. And we invited more than 1,600 people to the gardens of the abbey, and we streamed our show to the world – from the US to Taiwan.”