Br(u)no: Putting Brno on the Map

Photo credit: TMA / Brno Daily

Pop Quiz! What are two things that everyone in the world with a basic high school education has learned but does not know that it is connected to the Brno area? 

This is my go-to question whenever I have downtime in a classroom. Students rarely answer correctly. The answer does not include beer or the Moravian Karst or Villa Tugendhat. Beer is too general. Nobody in China knows about a cave system near Blansko. And high school students in Chile don’t know about functionalist architecture. 

The first answer has to do with history. It was a big battle fought a 20-minute bus ride away from the center of Brno. It involved a short guy (hint: Napoleon Bonaparte) who, when he won, basically ended the centuries-old Holy Roman Empire and began the process toward our modern-day international borders. That’s correct: The Battle of Austerlitz.  

The second answer has to do with science. It is concerns a man who spent a lot of time in his garden. He has a major square in Brno named after him. And, recently, because he is so significant, his 200th birthday celebration started this week — two years early. You may have seen the giant green pea around the city.  

Yes! You’re right: Gregor Johann Mendel, the founder of genetics.  

* * *  

Anyone who has studied basic biology has learned about the combinations of dominant and recessive genes. Mendel, using pea plants, developed the theory and proved it. He did it all in the soil of Brünn, which was then part of the Austo-Hungarian empire.  

The “Mendel Festival” continues today and tomorrow with public events throughout Brno. Read the detailed article: City of Brno Launches Celebrations of “Father of Genetics” Mendel’s Birthday. The portable and informational MendelBox will be around for the next two years as the 200-year celebration rages on.  

Mendel, however, is a fascinating person for more than just his scientific work. He was a flawed (read: real) person who, several times, spent weeks and months in bed with crippling depression. He developed, literally, one of the most important scientific theories of all time, but, during his lifetime, he struggled with anxiety and panic attacks and never got the satisfaction of knowing that his work had been accepted.  

Johann Mendel was born on July 20, 1822, to peasant farmers north of Brno. He had visions of grandeur as a teenage student but had trouble getting his career together. He became an Augustinian monk, partly because that order emphasized academics and learning. He ended up at St. Thomas’ Abbey in Brno. He was ordained as a priest — “Gregor” is his religious name — but he was not good at priestly duties. He stressed out when he visited a sick bed or had to give last rights.  

He was eventually allowed to concentrate on teaching. Twice, he tried to gain full accreditation. His first try resulted in weak essays and he froze up during the oral examination. Years later, he tried again, this time fleeing the room during the oral exam.  

Eventually, in 1851 at 29 years old, he was able to get into university in Vienna. He became the teaching assistant to Christian Doppler, whose name, like Mendel’s, is attached to a significant scientific principle: the Doppler Effect is the frequency of a wave with respect to the speed of the source and the observer.  

By July 1853, Mendel had finished his studies and returned to the Brno and the abbey. He started his hereditary experiments by breeding albino mice to normal mice, but the religious higher ups were not pleased with the animal sex and reproduction.  

So, in July 1854, Mendel began cultivating pea plants. The rest — generation after generation after generation of peas — produced the data that led to the understandings that still have wide ramifications for biology, genetics, horticulture, disease research, the understanding of DNA and much more. 

Mendel challenged the existing theory that offspring inherited an even 50 percent of the father’s genes and 50 percent of the mother’s genes. He proved that genes are dominant and recessive, and he developed the mathematical ratio to make predictions.  

When he presented his study in February 1865 here in Brno, nobody was much impressed. After the research was published the following year, Mendel sent copies to scientists around the world but only gone one response, and it was critical.  

Eventually, Mendel rose to be the abbot of his abbey and spent most of the rest of his years squabbling with the city over taxes. He died in 1884, at age 61, without knowing that his scientific work had amounted to anything.  

In 1900, three different scientists “rediscovered” Mendel’s work. The wrote their own papers but, at least, credited him in their sources. William Bateson, the English biologist who coined the word “genetics”, went back to Mendel’s original work and the rest, as they say, is history: Bateson became Mendel’s biggest promoter and made sure that credit went to the right place.  

The name “Mendel” was forevermore a staple of science textbooks.  

* * *  

Interestingly, though my pop quiz question stumps many people, Mendel is actually the way that I learned about Brno.  

“Mendel’s Dwarf”, a fictional Simon Mawer novel about a present-day geneticist, was passed to me while I lived in New York City more than a decade and a half ago. It resulted in one of those random pleasant shocks: I was standing in a packed downtown A-Train, cracked open the book, and flushed when I realized that the first scene took place in a Czech city. The Czech Republic was the last place I expected as the subway rumbled under Madison Square Garden en route to another winter day of horse racing at Aqueduct Racetrack.  

Now, whenever I describe to acquaintances where in the world I live, I tell them that, from the window of the hospital room where both of my children were born, I could see the top of the church where Gregor Johann Mendel planted peas and developed the heredity laws of Mendelian inheritance.  

That, I say, is Brno, the city where my family and I live.  

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