A Family Feud Over Mendel’s Manuscript on the Laws of Heredity





A long lost manuscript, one of the most important in the history of modern biology, has resurfaced as part of a dispute over its ownership.

The manuscript is the account by Gregor Mendel of the pea-breeding experiments from which he deduced the laws of heredity and laid the foundations of modern genetics.

Mendel read his paper in 1865 at two meetings of the Natural History Society of Brünn. He was then an Augustinian monk, later the abbot, in the Abbey of St. Thomas in Brünn, now Brno in the Czech Republic.

The paper was published the next year in the Brünn Natural History Society’s journal, but Mendel’s work was largely ignored during his lifetime. It was only in 1900, 16 years after his death, that other researchers rediscovered Mendel’s laws and realized that he had anticipated them.

The original manuscript of Mendel’s great work, called “Experiments on Plant Hybridization” in English, has suffered a longer obscurity, despite its historical significance. “From a conceptual view, it is the most remarkable scientific document in the history of the 19th century,” Robert C. Olby, a historian of science at the University of Pittsburgh, said in an interview. “For the design and interpretation of an experiment, there is nothing to get near it. So it is priceless.”

The priceless manuscript was discarded in 1911 by the Brünn Natural History Society and, luckily, rescued by a local high school teacher who retrieved it from a wastepaper basket in the society’s library. It was then restored to the society’s files. During the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, the manuscript spent some time in the briefcase of a German professor of botany who was in control of the Natural History Society’s premises. Then, in 1945, when Russian forces replaced the German occupiers, Mendel’s manuscript disappeared for almost half a century....

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