Although clearly a breed of ancient origins, the Burmese cat as we know it today, can truly be considered one of the major successes of twentieth century breeding. In the latter half of the last century, it came out of virtual oblivion, and was successfully established as among one of the most popular of all the recognized shorthair championship breeds, beloved by so many for its highly intuitive, personable, tenacious and almost dog-like nature, and therefore ideal as a much-adored family pet. Regardless of its history, the breed simply won over a myriad of hearts and continues to do so to this day.
The modern-day Burmese is also one of the few Asian breeds to have 'officially' appeared in America, before being recognized in either England or Europe. The pioneering work done to establish it, and to unravel its intriguing genetics, was the work of a band of very dedicated American breeders and fanciers, to whom the greatest debt of gratitude is truly owed, for their work in pulling the original Burmese cat out from its mixed heritage past.
But was the little brown cat that arrived in the United States in 1930, the first of its kind to be seen in the West? It may well have been the first documented in the United States, but little brown cats of Asian origin had certainly been known in the United Kingdom and Europe, considerably earlier.
One notable example, was a so-called 'Siamese' cat imported into England by the young Duchess of Bedford (later to be known as the famous 'Flying Duchess'), who just also happened to be the titular President of the National Cat Club (UK).
In the photograph at left, we see the Duchess seated inside her home at Woburn Abbey, fondly petting 'Bogie' who is her self-coloured 'Siamese'. The Duchess owned a number of cats including two 'Royal Siamese', one of whom was the famous 'Goblin'. But 'Bogie' was neither a 'Royal' Siamese or a 'Chocolate' (the name given to darker coloured Siamese - which today would be more correctly referred to, as Mink Tonkinese). Instead she was a very dark brown, and described as a 'whole-colour' or 'self' coloured cat. She is referred to in an article on the "Duchess of Bedfords's Pets", written by none other than Louis Wain, the famous cat caricaturist, cat judge and Chairman of the Committee of the National Cat Club Committee who, upon paying a visit to Woburn Abbey, penned the following about little 'Bogie' after first describing the Royal Siamese 'Goblin', in the most glowing terms:
" 'Bogie,' a whole-colour , very dark brown cat, is likewise a Siamese, and a vixen into the bargain. She has a philosophy of her own in regard to the treatment of furniture, and will pay sad havoc with silk, damask, and even 'down' cushions when she gets the chance. Consequently she is usually banished to an upper storey, or the grass lawn, whereon to work her wicked wiles."
In a sense, she was aptly named, for she was a 'bogus' Siamese. To look at her with an open mind, she resembles more closely the toning and conformation of a modern day Burmese. It is distinctly possible, if not likely, that she was an early Burmese or the equivalent of a seal-sepia tonkinese. This photograph, puts her into an era preceding the turn of the twentieth century, pre-dating the arrival into the United States of the progenitrix of the Burmese breed, by at least thirty-five years!
ARRIVAL IN THE UNITED STATES
The breed's modern origins are well documented and as every serious Burmese fancier now knows, stem from the importation to the United States from Burma of the little light seal brown cat, 'Wong Mau', by Dr. Joseph C. Thompson of San Francisco. At that time, it was genuinely believed that she was a pure bred Burmese cat. Dr. Thompson was only naturally intrigued with this little brown cat, the like of which, to the best of his knowledge, had never been seen before in the United States. In his view, this was a totally new variety (breed) of cat, and he was supported in that view by Dr. Clyde Keeler, Mrs. Virginia Cobb, and Madeleine Dmytryk. But he had a problem, in that there was no male Burmese with which to mate this new and unique type of cat.
Author Grace Burgess in her book Burmese Cats, published in 1970, gives us a clear, succinct account of the care then taken when Dr. Thompson was considering how to proceed:
"He enlisted the help of Mrs. Billie Gerst who held a Master's Degree in Animal Husbandry, and later of Mrs. Virginia Cobb, Boston, a well-known breeder of Siamese. Mrs. Gerst and Mrs. Cobb were both well trained in biology, genetics, and animal husbandry, and specific experiments were designed to define the genetics of a potential new breed. And that is how it began - a single cat: Wong Mau, and an interested group of scientists and experienced breeders.
"Very few people realise that the Burmese is probably the only one of the pedigreed breeds whose origins and development have been accurately and scientifically recorded since its arrival in the western world. This was not a breed which arose from a mis-mating, or a 'I wonder what would happen if…' attitude, but is the product of controlled breeding plans. Breeding experiments were long and exhaustive before the first strain of pure Burmese suitable for breeding and acceptable to the American Cat Fancy was produced."
That extremely hard work and dedication to the cause of rebuilding an entirely 'pure' strain of original Burmese stock was just the beginning. Years of planning, coupled with careful execution, in a scientific and controlled manner, eventually brought about the results of what had been so desired. In due course, the newly established pure Burmese lines were shared with others, including equally prudent and delighted British fanciers, who were exceptionally keen to do their part to establish this delightful breed around the globe. The Burmese cat has since literally become a world-wide phenomenon. It can be counted as one of the most respected pedigreed companion cats of the last century, adored by many - beloved by even more.
Registers associated with this article include The Incorporated Cat Fanciers Association of Great Britain (TICFAGB), National Cat Club (NCC), The Cat Club (CCR), Beresford Cat Club (BCC), Feline Federation Francaise (FFF), Siamese Cat Registry (SCR), US Register & Studbook for Cats (USR)including Supplement(USRS), The Studbook of the American Cat Association (ACA), and the Studbook & Register of the Cat Fanciers' Association (CFA).
Our thanks to The National Alliance of Burmese Breeders for sharing photos for use on this page.
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