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The Monk in the Garden
by Robin Marantz Henig

Reviewed by
Barbara J. Culliton

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Gregor Mendel is known worldwide for his studies of inheritance in ordinary garden peas. Laboring in a monastery garden in Brünn, Mendel bred and crossbred thousands of peas, carefully recording the characteristics of peas from generation to generation. History has immutably linked Mendel and his peas, but if he'd had his way, Brother Gregor would have been a mouse geneticist. In fact, his life in genetics began with mice.

Mendel bred mice in his two-room flat at the monastery, attempting to discern what would happen when wide-type mice mated with albinos. Would the baby mice have coats marked with traces of each parent or would one be dominant? Mendel never got a chance to find out because his bishop, who took offense at the idea of a priest having anything to do with sex, ordered him to stop. It was then that Mendel turned to peas, pleased that "the bishop did not understand that plants also have sex."

In The Monk in the Garden, Robin Marantz Henig recounts dozens of little known aspects of Mendel's life, carefully reconstructing his research in the context of the society in which he lived. Mendel "turned a few good insights into gold," according to Henig, whose new biography offers an intimate portrayal of Mendel's days in the garden, his efforts to publish his work, and his posthumous rise to scientific fame early in the 1900s when three independent researchers read his papers and grasped their significance.

But despite his public reputation as the father of genetics, Mendel's credibility has repeatedly been called into question. The garden in which he allegedly planted hundreds of peas, year after year, is on the North side of the monastery where there is nowhere near enough sun to sustain the numbers of plants Mendel claimed to have studied. Furthermore, the garden is way too small. Was Mendel really a patient, prescient genius or merely a very clever fraud?

Robin Henig has the answer which can be found in the excerpt from The Monk in the Garden that follows.

— Barbara J. Culliton

To download a PDF version of this excerpt (Adobe Acrobat) click here.
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"Southern Exposure," from THE MONK IN THE GARDEN; The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics. Copyright © 2000 by Robin Marantz Henig. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All Rights Reserved.

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