by Dolores Kennedy
ACFA All Breed Judge
History of the Burmese
The first Burmese was brought ashore from a ship docked in New Orleans, or so most of the stories go, and she was given to Dr. Joseph G. Thompson, who lived in San Francisco. He was a retired ship’s doctor of the US Navy and a very unusual character with a deep interest in the East. Dr. Thompson referred to her as a Burmese, because she was supposed t have joined the ship’s company in Burma. He named her Wong Mau, and he considered her a new variety of Malay-type cat. We know now she was without doubt a hybrid – a Burmese/Siamese mix.
Dr. Thompson enlisted the help of two prominent breeders, Virginia Cobb (Newton cattery) and Billie Gerst (Gerstdale cattery) and Dr. Clyde E. Keeler, a prominent geneticist. The four of them developed and established an experimental breeding program. Since Siamese were considered the closest in appearance, they were used in the breeding program. After two generations, this program resulted in kittens with three distinct colorations: some looked just like Siamese, some looked like Wong Mau (with medium brown body color and darker points and some a solid dark-chocolate brown color. The latter were considered the most attractive and the breeding program was aimed at isolating the genetic makeup of the phenotype. Discovering that these dark brown cats could indeed breed true, consistently producing dark brown cats, while the walnut brown variety, such as Wong Mau herself, continued to produce kittens in the three variations of coloration, the theory that Wong Mau was the first Tonkinese was proved. The results of the original experimental breeding program was published in the April 1943 Journal of Heredity, “Genetics of the Burmese Cat,” by the four program participants cited above. Unfortunately, Dr. Thompson did not live to see this paper published. He died of a heart attack while the paper was in publication.
This breeding program established the American Burmese. A proposal was made to CFA (Cat Fanciers Association) for acceptance as a new breed in 1934, and Burmese were approved for studbook registration in 1936. Once Burmese began to be exhibited, they became very popular with a great demand for kittens. Breeders wanting to increase the very limited breeding used Siamese stock, thus producing lots of hybrids. Since we now speculate that Siamese, recognized then only in seal points, may have been carrying the other colors, chocolate, blue and lilac, it would appear reasonable that the Burmese colors, champagne, blue and platinum (which are accepted in championship classes today) came from the Siamese out crosses. CFA registration was suspended in 1947 when that registering body would no longer allow this, after all either the Burmese were a breed of their own or they weren’t. Serious breeders then concentrated on breeding the type of cat that makes this breed unique and were successful in being reinstated by CFA for registration in 1953. At that time the Siamese were no longer allowed as outcrosses. Burmese in the sable color only were then returned to championship competition in 1957.
A standard was formulated to express the ideal of the original vision and to emphasize the difference between the Burmese and the Siamese. CFA adopted the standard in 1959 and it has changed very little since then. Because of ideological differences, with CFA, some members broke away and established ACFA (American Cat Fanciers Association) a new democratic Association in 1955. In 1961, ACFA registered 135 Burmese, One of which was Mizpah’s Ferdnand of Briarwood, owned by John E Baker.
The 1960’s produced many outstanding Burmese, which are the foundation of the cats today. Most of the Burmese of today can claim these ‘stars’ of the past in their pedigrees. Mizpah’s Ferdnand of Briarwood was one of those illustrious cats. Ferdnand made commercials for the cat litter Evergreen perched on his owner’s shoulders. Many of us can remember seeing Ferdnand traveling around show halls, draped around John’s shoulders. Other famous names were Fongin Chop Soy, Hill House Daniella of Shawnee and Shawnee Casey Jones of Phi Line. Burma Road’s Detour of Senshu also was part of that group of outstanding cats.
Ferdnand continued his career to become ACFA’s Royal InterAmerican Best Cat. He became the first shorthair to win that position, but not the last Burmese to gain that title. In 1985, Sin Jam’s Shogun Darkover, bred and owned by Dee Tomal, achieved ACFA’s Cat of the year and brought the sable Burmese back to the limelight.
In 1997, once again ACFA’s Cat of the Year was another sable male Burmese, Bastian’s Jack Daniels, bred by Dorothy Nelson and owned by Maureen Krzeszewski-D-J Nelson.
There are significant differences between the Burmese shown today and the Siamese and Tonkinese. These three breeds are separate and are not allowed to interbreed. Each have their separate standards and are very different in size and type. The Tonkinese is a combination of the two breeds with its own requirements that are very different from those of the Siamese and Burmese. It is neither as long as the Siamese nor as compact as the Burmese. The confirmation of their head is an example of the combination of the Siamese and the Burmese, it not round like the Burmese, but not a long wedge as is the Siamese head. It’s standard does not allow any outcross to Siamese or Burmese.