Mendel’s Garden, Czech Republic
Where Modern Genetics Was Born
For seven centuries, the skyline of Brno—the second-largest city in the Czech Republic—has been dominated by Spilberk Castle. Built on the summit of the highest hill in the city, it was one of Europe’s most notorious prisons, and a conspicuous warning to those who would oppose the rule of the Hapsburg dynasty.
Yet, for many, the most impressive site in Brno is a four- acre patch of land near the base of the hill. This is where Gregor Mendel, a friar at the Augustinian Abbey of St. Thomas, spent eight growing seasons (1856-63) cultivating and breeding as many as 10,000 pea plants (Pisum sativum), and meticulously counting some 40,000 blossoms and 300,000 peas. His experiments laid the foundations for modern genetics. And unbeknown to Mendel at the time, his discovery of how physical traits are passed down from one generation to the next revealed a crucial biological mechanism underlying Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection.
“Mendel is a giant in the history of genetics,” says David Fankhauser, a professor of biology and chemistry at the University of Cincinnati Clermont College, who made a “pilgrimage” to the abbey in 2006. “I wanted to feel what it was like to be him in his garden and look at his digs, as it were.”