G. J. Mendel: inquisitive, talented and ambitious

Welcome to the second part of our series Mendel, the Man, presenting a personal portrait of the “father of genetics”. Enjoy the podcast with the title G. J. Mendel: inquisitive, talented and ambitious.

16 May 2022 Jiřina Relichová

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To look inside a person, it is important to know what his childhood was like, and from what we know, it is clear he showed curiosity, talent and ambition. Although Mendel came from a poor family (his parents had a small farmstead), he had a strong desire for education from childhood. He was very interested in nature, wanted to learn new things and was eager to study.

After graduating from elementary school, therefore, where his teachers had pointed out his talent, he urged and begged his parents to let him continue his studies. Johann probably inherited his mental abilities from his mother, whose brother, Anton Swirtlich, was the first primary school teacher in his native Hynčice. His intelligent parents, who cared about the wellbeing and happiness of their child, could not bear the constant begging for long and finally agreed that the 11-year-old Johann could go “on exam” to the 3rd grade of the Piarist School in Lipník. He soon became the star pupil in his class and, with his great diligence, opened the way to a further six-year study at the grammar school in Opava. He later wrote about his desire for further education in his biography (written in the third person, as was customary at the time) “After graduating from high school in 1840, his first concern was to secure the necessary resources to continue his studies”.

Gregor then began a two-year course of study at the University of Arts in Olomouc. At the age of 21, the desire for further education could only be fulfilled in one way - it must be financially secured. As he himself writes in his biography, this financial security was provided through his choice to enter the monastery, which his mother also wished for. He was partly lucky in that, just at the end of his studies in Olomouc, the abbot of the Augustinian monastery in Old Brno, Cyril Napp, turned to his well-known physics professor Franz at the University of Olomouc to ask if he could recommend a suitable adept to the monastery as people were needed. This person, in addition to their priestly duties, would also be engaged in teaching. Professor Franz wrote To date, two candidates have applied to me, but I can only recommend one. His name is Johann Mendel… he almost always had excellent grades in both years of philosophy and has a very solid character. In my subject, I can almost call him the best of them all”. Even so, it was not easy to get into the monastery. There were a total of 14 candidates and they only took four. Mendel also succeeded in this test, in which he had to provide a trial sermon in front of all the monks.

The monastery environment and the generosity and helpfulness of the abbot enabled him to fulfil his desire for education. At that time, the teacher and the priest (often in one person) were respected scholars. Mendel’s ideal was to have a career as a Professor. His ambition to become a teacher was also indirectly expressed in a petition from 1848 addressed to the Constituent Assembly of the Reich and signed by six Augustinians, where at the end of the petition they “allow themselves to be signed… the religious priests of the Augustinian monastery… make a sincere request…. to be allowed, according to the extent of their abilities and merits they have gained so far, to devote all their mental strength to a fully public teaching office. The petition is written in Mendel's handwriting, and added to the signature he wrote cooperator and teacher candidate”.

Mendel writes about his dream career as a teacher in his biography, After completing his theological studies in 1848, he was respectfully signed by the Grand Duke Prelate to obtain permission to prepare for his ‘philosophical rigorosis’ exam. When he intended to take the exams the following year, he was invited to take the place of a substitute at the grammar school in Znojmo and gladly complied with this call. From the beginning of his substitute work, he did his best to present the subjects entrusted to the pupils in an easy-to-understand way and hopes that he did not act without success, as he had ample opportunity to draw on private teaching, to which he owed his bread for four years, his experience of the pupils' possible performances, and of the various degrees of youthful receptivity.

The undersigned is convinced that he has hereby submitted a brief summary of his curriculum vitae. His miserable youth taught him to know the serious aspects of life prematurely, it also taught him to work. Although he reaped the benefits of economic security, he did not cease to want to make a living on his own. He would respectfully consider if he could meet the requirements of the famous examination commission and achieve the fulfilment of his desire. Surely he would not regret any effort or sacrifice to get his duties as thorough as possible”.

Although Mendel twice failed to pass the teacher’s exams, he did teach in the end; from the age of 32, he taught physics and natural sciences at the Brno high school. The headmaster of the school assessed his teaching abilities positively, stating that his presentations were clear, logical and fully suitable for the understanding of his young students.


Translation: Kevin F. Roche
Editor: Zuzana Jayasundera

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