Czechoslovakia is one of the smaller countries in central Europe with a checkered history. Before World War I it was an integral part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but upon the latter’s dissolution after the war, Czechoslovakia was created as an independent state. It was occupied by Germany during World War II, but was eventually liberated by the allied armies and regained its independence. However, it shortly came under the domination of the U.S.S.R. and this is still the situation today. From our point of view there is one place of major interest in the history of biology and medicine in the city of Brno, which is where Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) established the modern science of genetics. We feel compelled to point out that crossing the border into Czechoslovakia is not exactly easy for a westerner, and it is of the utmost importance that full preparations are made in advance. Nevertheless, once inside the country there are reasonably good roads and train services between the major cities. We found the people pleasant, cooperative and eager to help.
Location – 200 kilometers east and slightly south of the capital Prague.
Train – Direct from Prague.
Road – Take the E14 from Prague and exit at Brno. There is another way of
getting to Brno by road, which may be more convenient for many people,
and this is from Vienna in Austria. Brno is about 135 kilometers north of
Vienna and the E7 runs straight between the two cities. There is also a
good bus service two or three times a week between Vienna and Brno,
and we found this helpful, as it avoids all the problems of taking a car
across the border. Brno was formerly called Brünn, its German name,
and has been famous for a long time as a textile center. It is large, but
there are reasonably good public transportation services.
Tuesday – Sunday, 9.00 – 16.00
Small charge for admission.
This is part of the Augustinian monastery, where Mendel lived. It comprises a Mendel museum and library, and also the garden where he performed his genetic experiments.
Johann Gregor Mendel was born in 1822 in Heinzendorf, Austria (now Hyncice, Czechoslovakia). His mother and father were both peasants, but from families with long traditions of professional gardening, and young Johann was brought up in his tradition. He was a good student at school, but suffered from severe mental strain which plagued him all his life. In due course he entered the University of Olmutz to study philosophy, which fortunately for his later work included a considerable amount of mathematics.
In 1843, at the age of 21, he entered the Augustinian monastery in Brno, taking the name of Gregor. Here he found an atmosphere conducive to learning, and as part of his theological studies between 1844-1848, he attended courses at the Philosophical Institute in such things as pomology and viticulture. Later under the auspices of the monastery, Gregor went to the University of Vienna and studied more botany. Due to illness he never received a degree from Vienna, and returned to the monastery which, with minor interruptions, was home for the rest of his life.
Mendel began his work on the hybridization and cross pollination of plants in 1856. It took him 10 years of careful and painstaking work, mostly on garden peas, to unfold the basic phenomena of what was to become the new science of genetics. The language Mendel used to describe his results is no longer current in genetics, but basically what he established for peas was as follows:
1. There was in each plant a pair of hereditary factors controlling
flower color and other characteristics.
2. The two factors in each pair are derived from the plant’s parents, one
member of the pair from each parent.
3. The two factors in each pair separate during the formation of germ
cells, so that each germ cell receives only one factor.
4. The factors for the various characteristics (e.g., red or white flowers)
are alternate forms of the same factor, one being dominant over
All this has since evolved into the modern concepts of genes, alleles, homozygotes, heterozygotes, etc., and the science of genetics, with its incredible achievements and benefits, to say nothing of its basic contribution to the understanding of biology itself.
Mendel published his results in 1866 in the journal of the local Natural History Society, under the title “Versuche Über Pflanzen-Hybriden” (Experiments in Plant Hybridization). Here fate took an unfortunate hand, for there were only 20 copies printed (only 6 are known to survive) and apparently the local readers of the journal did not understand the significance of the work. The journal had such a narrow distribution that it never reached the main centers of science. Thus his work “Lay dormant” for 36 years before it was rediscovered in 1900 and finally put to use. It is really impossible to overestimate the importance of Mendel’s work, it was a triumph of preparation and perseverance.
In 1868 Mendel was elected Abbot of the monastery, and the official duties involved with this occupied an increasing amount of his time. With the exception of some work on the hybridization of bees, only spasmodically did he do any more scientific work. He died at the Augustinian monastery in 1884.
To return to the monastery itself. It is no longer used as a monastery, but it is very much intact as Mendel would have known it. There is a huge garden courtyard to the monastery building, but the actual garden that Mendel used is a small fenced area right at the entrance to the Mendel museum. Like everything else at the Mendelianum, they are beautifully kept and are a joy to see. Inside the building there are several rooms which comprise the Mendel museum. The first of these is the Mendel memorial room. Originally this was the dining room of the monastery, but it is now fitted out with a series of panels explaining Mendel’s life and work. There are also display cases showing his own instruments, microscopes, grafting tools, pressed plants, etc. Next there is the Abbot’s room. This was the conference room of the monks, and it is preserved more or less intact as it was originally. It is a lovely room with superb furniture and various large portraits on the walls. There is also a library section in the museum, which contains many of the Mendel’s personal books. It is of great interest that amongst these is an early German edition of the “The origin of Species, etc.” by Charles Darwin. It is really one of the tragedies of the 19th century communication, that Mendel knew of Darwin’s work, but Darwin did not know of Mendel’s, which was something Darwin desperately needed to explain certain aspects of his evolutionary theory. There are other rooms occupied by the director and his staff.
When Mendel died in 1884 he was buried in the Abbots’ plot of the Central Cemetery in Brno. The abbots’ plot is difficult to find, and some assistance will be necessary, but once there Mendel’s simple grave is clearly marked. Lovers of music may also wish to see the grave of the great Czechoslovakian composer, Leos Janacek (1854-1928), in the same cemetery.
Brno, Czechoslovakia, is not the easiest place to get to, but for dedicated geneticists, doctors, biologists, historians of science, etc., the effort is worth it. It is a pleasant thought that in Brno there is this permanent and cherished memorial to Gregor Mendel, which we hope will remain in good hands.