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The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics Paperback – May 12, 2001

3.7 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

The author of numerous books (e.g., A Dancing Matrix: How Science Confronts Emerging Viruses) and articles on popular science and medicine, Henig here recounts the life of Gregor Mendel, the 19th-century monk who laid the groundwork for modern genetics through his pea-breeding experiments. Instead of using the standard biographical form, the author, who describes her writing as "educated deduction," employs a more descriptive, narrative style a few steps removed from the currently popular fictional biography. Very little information exists about Mendel, many of whose papers were burned after his death, and Henig fills in the blanks with probable scenarios. She paints an exceptionally human portrait of the monk that falls between the inflated hero and the beneficiary of lucky accidents. Henig's Mendel is a realistic compromise, a man who experienced failures and successes through intuition, luck (good and bad), and hard work. General readers will find the story very engaging, and the introduction to genetic theories is clearly outlined. This work will not be as appealing to scientists, who may take issue with "filling in the blanks" and the simplified discussion of genetics. Recommended for the general science collections of all public and academic libraries.DMarianne Stowell Bracke, Univ. of Houston Libs.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books (May 12, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618127410
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618127412
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #713,751 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on May 23, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I thought I had read enough nonfiction history books to know what to expect -- edifying, but not entertaining. This book blew those expectations out of the water. Chock-full of information, yes, but also liberally sprinkled with anecdotes and slices of life from the times surrounding Mendel and his rediscoverers. It's downright funny at times. I came away with an understanding of the birth of genetics that I'd even never known I was missing, not to mention a renewed interest in the field, without ever really realizing that I was reading a work of historical scholarship -- those are dry. This was fun.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is a vivid picture of a not-so-vivid genius. Henig's ability to make her subject come alive is impressive. In a graceful and entertaining style, she shows his diligent, painstaking work and his very human qualities; there's nothing dry about this book. I particularly enjoyed the byways Henig took me down. She provides fascinating details about not only Mendel but also other scientists and scientific controversies, both during Mendel's life and afterwards. She sets the stage brilliantly, I think, and shows the repercussions of Mendel's work with lively portraits of men like Bateson and Weldon. I would recommend this book heartily, both to people in the field (such as my son, who is a geneticist) and to people who like a good read about a major figure and an important era in scientific history.
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Format: Hardcover
As a gardener, I love the story of a monk who loves gardening founding the science of genetics -- and it's a good story. As a mother and sometimes teacher, I love the fact that Mendel was a lousy test-taker and didn't do well in school as a result -- and still became the founder of genetics.(He became a monk to get an education, as I recall--or was it to do his plant breeding work? I don't remember that detail.) At a time when overachievement is a sickness, this tale of a man who loves his numbers becoming obsessed about patterns in pea reproduction stumbling on the secret to a whole modern industry is tonic. And the whole second half of the book, which is the story about how his discoveries were lost and found and became the center of a story of science politics, are simply fascinating. I am a little puzzled at the reader who complained there was no original research. You don't even have to read the book to know the author went to Brno. On C-Span Books the author explained about how when she was at the monastery in Brno she learned about the "secret" door in the monastery's formal library and went through to the room in back where the monks actually studied and did their work -- and how it was from that window that they probably shouted out to Mendel in his garden, thereby explaining one piece of the puzzle about why people thought he fudged his numbers and why he probably didn't. Far more interesting to me, in some ways, was realizing that this was a time when religion supported science and science was something the average gardener could get involved in and would then talk about in a local talk -- in the days before people were glued to their tv sets -- when science and religion weren't seen as adversaries, as they appear to be in Kansas. A good read.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a terrific book, exquisitely timed. The race to decode the human genome has just been concluded (supposedly)--but how many of us have any clue about how and where the science of genetics originated? I knew of Mendel and had a vague sense of his role, but Henig's book tells the whole human story, and in terms that make the fundamentals of genetics easy to understand. To read this book is to gain a whole new sense of how chance and personality can sometimes yield discoveries that change the world, even if the true import of those discoveries at first goes unrealized. What I especially liked, however, were the insights into Mendel, the monk, a guy with a really bad case of test anxiety and a passion for practical jokes, flowers and, thankfully, peas. There's something very sweet about this book and, ultimately, very moving.
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Format: Hardcover
Henig provides a gripping account of the life and work of Gregor Mendel with just enough speculation to make this scientific biography read like a novel. After describing Mendel's work and his dissapointment in the lack of impact his results had during his own lifetime, she gives an account of the battles around Mendel's "rediscovery" that ranks among the best tales of cut-throat scientific intrigue. The author's appreciation for science and admiration for single-minded scientific genius and attention to detail shows throughout her account. She has a sound appreciation of both the promise and the ethical dilemmas provided by modern genetic discoveries (which she really only expounds upon in the final chapter). My only complaint would be that she provides no insight into the spiritual life of the "monk in the garden", something many readers might expect given the title of the book. I would recommend this book for anyone interested in the science, the history of science or the biography of outstanding individuals.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a such wonderful a biography of Gregor Mendel, that I was startled to see so many 2 star ratings. It is easy to read and understand even if you lack a significant scientific education.
Rather than citing just the bare facts, Robin Marantz Henig writes like a novelist. She interweaves the scientific debates before, during, and after Mendel's time with the importance of his discovery. Mendel had no model to follow, no fellow researchers to encourage him, no context into which to put his research, and no vocabulary to describe the genetics he was documenting. His paper on the subject was largely ignored... and then rediscovered 35 years later.
Perhaps Mendel got a lucky break in choosing Moravian peas because their characteristics were readily identifiable. Or perhaps it is those characteristics, seed color, seed texture, plant height, that caused him find his work.
In modern times it can be seen as rather ironic that the initial work in genetics, the work that was needed to support Darwin, was developed by a monk in a monastery. But monks were the conservers of all the great ancient works. Their monasteries contained the libraries of Europe throughout the middle ages. The monks were the literate class. St. Augustine stated that you talk to God when you pray, but God talks to you when you read. And Mendel's monastery followed Augustinian doctrine.
That quiet isolation and contemplation may also have been essential to conducting the work. Growing and recording peas does not seem stimulating. Henig writes "By the time Mendel was done with this succession of crosses, recrosses, and backcrosses, he must have counted a total of more than 10,000 plants, 40,000 blossoms, and a staggering 300,000 peas.
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