Most people know that Gregor Mendel, the Moravian monk who patiently grew his peas in a monastery garden, shaped our understanding of inheritance. But people might not know that Mendel's work was ignored in his own lifetime, even though it contained answers to the most pressing questions raised by Charles Darwin's revolutionary book, On Origrin of the Species, published only a few years earlier. Mendel's single chance of recognition failed utterly, and he died a lonely and disappointed man.
Thirty-five years later, his work was rescued from obscurity in a single season, the spring of 1900, when three scientists from three different countries nearly simultaneously dusted off Mendel's groundbreaking paper and finally recognized its profound significance. The perplexing silence that greeted Mendel's discovery and his ultimate canonization as the father of genetics make up a tale of intrigue, jealousy, and a healthy dose of bad timing.
Telling the story as it has never been told before, Robin Henig crafts a suspenseful, elegant, and richly detailed narrative that fully evokes Mendel's life and work and the fate of his ideas as they made their perilous way toward the light of day. The Monk in the Garden is a literary tour de force about a little-known chapter in the history of science, and it brings us back to the birth of genetics - a field that continues to challenge the way we think about life itself.
The book is divided into two sections. The first is the biography of Gregor Mendel (1822-1884). Mendel spent thirty-five years conducting experiments primarily on peas. Mendel was a monk who in the last part of his life was the Abbott of the monastery where he spent his life. He is considered the father of the science of genetics. Henig reveals the strengths and weakness of Mendel in an interesting fashion.
The second part of the book focuses on the rediscovery of Mendel. The primary figure is William Bateson (1861-1926). Bateson was a professor of biology in England and was the first person to use the word genetics. In 1902 he read Mendel’s paper and realized its importance for Darwinism. Henig tells of Bateson’s work to bring Mendel’s work to prominence. Henig reviews Bateson’s research work and his use of women scientists as research assistants. The author goes into detail about the disagreement between Bateson and Thomas Hunt Morgan(1866-1945) who developed the chromosome theory which Bateson opposed.
The book is well written and researched. The story is easy to read with lots of details about the main scientist. I did notice a few historical errors, for example, Henig said Galileo refused to renounce his heliocentric belief before the Inquisition when, in fact, he did. The author states she traveled to the Monastery in Czech Republic that Mendel lived it and examined his garden and papers. Henig noted that most of Mendel’s papers were burned after his death.
The author states her interest in genetics is personal because her father died of Huntington’s disease.
Fleet Cooper does a good job narrating the book.
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