It can easily be called one of the most important documents in the history of modern science. Gregor Mendel’s priceless manuscript on the inheritance of plant traits, composed in Brno in 1865, opened the door to the field of genetics. This month, after many years of changing hands and much negotiation, it was brought home.
Not much remains today of the little garden where Abbot Gregor Mendel spent a decade watching pea plants grow. Fortunately though, the manuscript made of his unique observations is still in good condition, and is currently sitting in a safe in the Mendel Museum in Brno after a thirty-year anabasis. Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg made concerted efforts to bring the precious document back to the country.
“I became involved with this because it truly is a landmark scientific work, created in the monastery in Brno, it is the property of the monastery in Brno, so that is where it belongs. I visited Baden-Württemberg where I discussed the matter with the minister-president. But it is not my achievement that it was possible to arrange this, there was a lot of work involved.
“The value of this document is in its content, in the one-of-a-kind work that led to the foundation of an entire science. How much it would go for in an auction I don’t know, but that is not important. The important thing is that this is one of the key manuscripts of modern natural science.”
In 1865, Mendel’s compiled his observations of tens of thousands of pea plants under the headline “Experiments on Plant Hybridization”, and delivered it to the Natural History Society of Brno – to no particular acclaim. The findings were appreciated and a few articles about them went to press, but it would be decades longer before they were understood and taken up by the wider scientific community. Gregor Mendel himself spent most of the rest of his life dealing with the administrative pains of his office as the abbot of the Old Brno Abby, and he died in 1881.
Today there is no price that can be put to the thin stack of yellow paper that is Gregor Mendel’s Experiments on Plant Hybridization, with its splendid calligraphy and diagrams demystifying the workings of life on Earth. Ondřej Dostál is the curator of the Mendel Museum in Brno.
“He was able to predict something he could not see, but anticipated to be inside of organisms: that something from the mother and the father was passed on to the ensuing generation. This is the first and the most important article leading to the discovery of genetics. It is a work that was absolutely fundamental, that helped ensure the foundation of genetics as it is today.”
The latter history of Mendel’s breakthrough treatise is somewhat convoluted. The monastery was closed down in 1953 and Experiments on Plant Hybridization was apparently hidden by the Augustinian monks until the 1980s, when it was sent for safekeeping to Vienna, then to Germany. For Mendel’s successor, Abbot Evžen Martinec, it’s return to the Augustinians was the only appropriate solution.
“Everything created by a monk living in the monastery stays in the monastery, so this is where this work belongs. And since this manuscript had been living a life of its own in recent years, I am very happy that it was possible that it be returned to us.”
For the Mendel family, however, the situation is not so clear-cut and certainly not resolved. They say that the manuscript was in the possession of a family company since 2001 when it was given to them by a monk who had in turn received it from a scientific society of which Mendel was a member. They cite evidence that the Augustinians made no claim to the manuscript as of 2002 and say the Czech government reached a deal with them despite knowing that the order may not be the proper owner. The German family intends to take the matter to the courts.
There was no talk of further disputes this month though, as the manuscript was unveiled in Brno. Mr Dostál says that plans for its exhibition will be finalised as soon as possible pending an examination of its condition.
“Hopefully the manuscript will go on display soon; it depends on what arrangement is made with the Old Brno Abbey. What I’m sure will happen first is that the manuscript will be studied to make sure that it has not been damaged in any way and then we can decide on what occasion it will be presented. We assume it will be sometime early this year or in the summer months. But it will certainly be presented as soon as possible.”
What Experiments on Plant Hybridization tells us about how life carries on and evolves is certainly well-known, but as Ondřej Dostál says, the manuscript also offers insights into Gregor Mendel himself and the kind of person that he was.
“Mendel presented his information, described what he had measured, what he had discovered and everything that he had noticed in this document. The manuscript shows that he was a very precise person, very attentive to detail and a very clever researcher, practically a genius.”
For the Mendel Museum, which is located in the Old Brno Monastery by the
garden where genetics had their inauspicious beginnings, there can hardly
be a better time to receive the great man’s life’s work, as it prepares
to celebrate the 190th anniversary of his birth this July.