Book: The Monk in the Garden

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The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel

Author: Robin Marantz Henig
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company

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 Origin 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 Moravian monk and naturalist Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) labored quietly over the years in his abbey’s garden, becoming known locally as a reliable meteorologist with an unusually green thumb. He was much more than that, of course, but his transforming experiments in what a later acolyte would call “genetics” were less well known. When he published the results of his many attempts to discover the mechanisms by which traits are passed from one generation to the next—in Mendel’s case, in sweet peas—it was in the proceedings of a local scientific study group, and it would take nearly two decades before researchers in more august institutions would in turn discover Mendel’s work and apply it to their own revolutionizing biology in the process.

Mendel’s life was full of disappointments: he failed his qualifying examinations to teach high school several times, and he had trouble getting the scientific establishment of his day to take him seriously. In her lucid, often moving life of the great (and to all purposes self-taught) scientist, Robin Marantz Henig gives readers a view of the deeply religious man himself and of his work not only in the context of his time but also in light of recent developments in the constantly changing field of genetics. Taking issue with historians of science who have sought to discount Mendel’s contributions to the field, she makes a well-defended claim that the monk in his small garden should be honored as a genius: “a man with a vision and the dedication to carry it to its brilliant, radical conclusion.” Her book is a fitting, and very welcome, memorial. —Gregory McNamee

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