Fussing and feuding over the pea-breeding experiment manuscript.
"A Family Feud Over Mendel’s Manuscript on the Laws of Heredity"
May 31st, 2010
The New York Times
May 31st, 2010
The New York Times
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.
The first people to hear of it again were members of Mendel’s family, the descendants of his two sisters, Veronica and Theresia. Like many other German speakers in Czechoslovakia, the family moved to West Germany after World War II.
At some point after 1988, Erich Richter, a Mendel descendant who is also an Augustinian monk known as Father Clemens, told other family members that he possessed Mendel’s manuscript. It had been sent to him by a monk in Prague and he wanted to place it legally in the family’s possession. So in 2001, eight senior members of the Mendel family — including Father Clemens — formed a company to preserve the document as a German cultural treasure, and the manuscript was placed in a safe deposit box in a bank in Darmstadt, Germany.
Dr. Maria Schmidt, a great-great-great-granddaughter of Veronica Mendel and a member of the family company, said that Father Clemens had recently changed his mind about the ownership of the manuscript after the head of the Augustinians in southern Germany and Austria, Father Dominic of Vienna, demanded that the manuscript be given to the order.
“There was tremendous pressure on Clemens,” Dr. Schmidt said. “They said they would kick him out of the cloister. My father’s cousin is 77 and has no property. He would have lost his car and apartment.”
Father Dominic said in an interview that the manuscript had been given to Father Clemens so that “he should take care of it as an Augustinian — it has nothing to do with the Mendel family.” The manuscript did not belong to the Brünn Natural History Society, he said, but rather would have been returned to Mendel by the printer along with the first proof, as was then customary, and has been the property of the Augustinians ever since.
Father Clemens began to change his story about the ownership of the manuscript, suggesting it really belonged to the Augustinians, said William Taeusch, Dr. Schmidt’s husband. “He started to say to the family, ‘Aren’t they the rightful owners?’ The family says, ‘What’s going on, for God’s sake? If you were given it and were told it was the Augustinians’ property, why did you keep it for yourself for 11 years and then sign a bogus contract giving it to the family?’ ”
At a small meeting of the family company on May 9, which several members including Dr. Schmidt could not attend, three members decided to take pity on Father Clemens’s predicament. They took the manuscript from the safe and drove it to Father Clemens in Stuttgart. Father Clemens told Father Dominic that he could fly in from Vienna and collect it on May 11.
Mr. Taeusch said that he called the German cultural authorities to warn them the manuscript was about to be taken out of the country. He said that the Augustinians then deposited the manuscript with their lawyers, the firm Wahlert in Stuttgart, where it is to remain while ownership is determined. Marion Jung, a press officer at the Ministry for Science, Research and Culture of the state of Baden-Württemberg in Germany, confirmed that the ministry was looking into the case and would decide if the manuscript was authentic and if it should be put on a list of cultural treasures that are not allowed to leave the state.
Dr. Schmidt said she would like to see Mendel’s manuscript given to a public institution, like the society of the Sudeten Germans in Munich or the University of Heidelberg. “It’s kind of sad, it could have been so wonderful, but now there is all this tension and fighting. And I am very shocked that the church would come up with these threats,” she said.
In the history of modern biology, Mendel’s article is probably second in importance only to Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” Mendel made 40 reprints of his article, which he sent to scientific luminaries of the time. There are reports that one copy went to Darwin and was discovered among his papers with the pages uncut, a chore that printers in those days often left to readers. The history of biology could have been quite different had Darwin read Mendel’s article, recognized that it provided a better theory of inheritance than his own, and incorporated it in future editions of his work.
But the fetching story of the journal with the uncut pages seems to be incorrect, according to research by the editors of Darwin’s papers at the University of Cambridge. The source of the story seems to be an 1881 book on plant breeding by W. O. Focke. But its description of Mendel’s work was probably too brief to have made Darwin abandon his own ideas.
Gregor Mendel [Wikipedia]