Dr. Johann Vollmann, PhD is Associate Professor of Plant Breeding at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (POKU) in Vienna, Austria. He has conducted research on Mendel’s history on the context of plant breeding during the time Mendel was active in research, and contemporary reports of Mendel’s activities in newspapers. Dr. Vollmann received the Mendel Memorial Medal in 2016 for his research on Mendel.
Based on your examination of plant breeding in the latter half of the nineteenth century, in what ways did Mendel’s contemporary plant breeders influence his research, and what novel contributions did he make that other plant breeders were not investigating at the time?
Several of the nineteenth century plant breeders already carried out hybridisations. They observed, that the first generation following a cross was uniform, whereas the second generation was described as “variable”. Mendel might have been aware of such observations which also confirmed his own findings. But Mendel went much further: He tried to find a general mechanism explaining these observations. He looked at figures on the population level and used statistics. And by doing so he came up with a fairly precise explanation on how biological information is transferred from one generation to the next one.
Could you share a few of the most intriguing discoveries from your examination of newspaper reports on Mendel during his lifetime?
The newspaper findings are just a small piece in the Mendel puzzle. But these reports confirm what present-day Mendel biographers are pointing out: Gregor Mendel was not excluded from the rest of the world and from the scientific community. He was an open-minded person, he travelled to Vienna, to Rome, Paris, even London, he had a political attitude, he had various interests which he pursued. And it is fascinating to see that seemingly irrelevant information such as a traveller’s hotel registration becomes interesting over 150 years later when it is viewed in another context.