The history of science is filled with tales of underappreciated geniuses. Indeed, the founder of modern genetics was not fully appreciated for his ideas until decades after his death.

His name was Gregor Mendel and he loved to raise pea plants.

“People who are in power can help you or block you.”

Born Johann Mendel on July 20, 1822, the burgeoning scientific genius struggled financially for most of his childhood because he was the son of a poor farmer in the Austrian Empire. Joining the Order of Saint Augustine, a mendicant order of the Catholic Church, Mendel was able to spend his life as a monk and therefore not have to worry about his livelihood. While this was a smart decision for someone who wished to spend much of his life studying monasteries of science, since de facto universities in the 19th century often housed important scientific innovators, it did not mean that Mendel was spared all future hardships. In 1850, for example, he failed one of the three exams required to become a certified high school teacher. Mendel eventually overcame this and other career setbacks, but was ultimately never appreciated for his contributions to science during his lifetime. When he died on January 6, 1884 of chronic nephritis and possible cardiovascular problems, he was considered a kind and intelligent Augustinian friar and abbot of his monastery but not much else.

Sixteen years passed before Mendel’s true contributions to humanity were rediscovered. To understand the significance of that rediscovery, however, we must begin by describing Mendel’s historic experiments with peas. As he explained when he presented his landmark paper “Experiments in Plant Hybridization” in 1865, Mendel had spent nine years testing 28,000 plants, most of them pea plants. He wanted to learn how to reliably breed specific types of peas, explaining that he hoped to come up with “a generally applicable law governing the formation and development of hybrids.” It was never his intention to revolutionize science; indeed, both when he discussed his paper in lectures and when he published it in 1866, he presented his findings in humble terms. Perhaps for this reason, Mendel’s fellow scientists generally dismissed his work as simply dealing with hybridization, failing to see its implications for understanding the laws of heredity. Even the scientist Charles Darwin, who discovered evolution, appears to have been unaware of Mendel’s work during his lifetime, although Mendel sent him a copy of his paper, which Darwin never opened. When Mendel died, he was well respected and well liked by his family and his friends, but he was hardly considered a pioneering scientist.

And yet MendelI hadpioneer of new scientific theories. Specifically, he came up with three vital concepts that are now known as Mendel’s laws of inheritance. First there is the law of dominance and uniformity, which holds that alleles (alternative forms of genes that are in the same place on a chromosome and produced by mutation) can be either dominant or recessive, with organisms having at least one allele dominant displaying that allele trait. Then there’s the law of segregation, which stated that gametes (the reproductive cells of animals and plants) contain a segregated version of the alleles for each gene and, consequently, each gamete carries only one allele for each gene. Finally there is the law of independent assortment, which found that genes with different traits can independently separate from each other during gamete formation.

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Mendel managed to be hailed as a scientific pioneer more than a third of a century after he presented those concepts and more than a decade and a half after his death.

Fortunately for Mendel’s legacy, three separate botanists working independently of each other ended up rediscovering his ideas and in the year 1900 they all published their concepts crediting Mendel’s paper with originating the theories. To this day it is not clear whether the botanists in question Hugo de Vries, Carl Correns and Erich with Tshermak did as they did out of altruism or because attributing the idea to Mendel clearly avoided any possible competition for credit between the three scientists . Thus Mendel managed to be hailed as a scientific pioneer more than a third of a century after he presented those concepts and more than a decade and a half after his death.

Mendel is certainly not alone in history when it comes to scientists who were not appreciated in their day. Only the field of biology is filled with examples of this happening. In 1847 Ignaz Semmelweis, a young doctor at a maternity clinic of the Vienna General Hospital, realized that mortality rates were unusually high in the maternity ward run by doctors (compared to the one run by midwives) because doctors delivered babies after working on corpses. Semmelweis’ solution that doctors wash their hands after working with cadavers seems like common sense today; at the time, however, Semmelweis was harassed and bullied by his peers, many of whom took offense to the idea that their hands could ever be dirty. His early identification of what Louis Pasteur would later recognize as germ theory was not recognized during his lifetime.

In contrast, Dr. Katalin Karik was recognized for her work during her lifetime. it involves the creation of a synthetic single strand of an RNA molecule known as messenger RNA (or mRNA). While working as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century, Karik came up with the idea for an mRNA vaccine, or a vaccine that injects a tailored version of mRNA into the body which then infects human cells and trains them to produce proteins such as those found in a given virus. Although Karik’s ideas were rejected by her colleagues for many years, in 2013 she was hired by BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals to turn those ideas into reality. That’s why, when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in late 2019, scientists were able to develop effective vaccines using mRNA technology by the end of 2020.

Speaking to Salon at the time, Karik offered wisdom that applies to anyone, like Mendel and Semmelweis, who has sound scientific observations that aren’t sufficiently appreciated at the time they are presented.

“People who are in power, can help you or block you”, Kariktold Salon. “And sometimes people choose to make your life miserable. And now they can’t be happy with me because now they know that, ‘Oh, you know, we had the confrontation and . . .’ But I don’t spend too much time on that stuff. “

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