Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

[This is part of a series I’m doing here on Retrospectacle called ‘Science Vault.’ Pretty much I’m just going to dig back into the forgotten and moldering annuls of scientific publications to find weird and interesting studies that very likely would never be published or done today (and perhaps never should have.) I’ll probably try to do it once a week (and if you have suggestions, please do email me with them.)]

i-3053128a838d73e214f32d53bfc9b690-bell.jpg Some say that American science is defined by its innovation and creativity, and who better embodies that than Alexander Graham Bell? Inventor of the telephone (strike that, first patenter of it!), founding member of the National Geographic Society and the journal Science, Bell’s list of accolades is long and prestigious. Although, perhaps a little-known fact about this man was that he was also quite preoccupied with the nipples of the sheep that lived on his estate. After noticing that some sheep had more than the average number of nipples, he attempted to systematically breed them to determine the genetic underpinnings of the extraneous nipples. Luckily this precious information was published in Science in 1904, entitled “The Multi-Nippled Sheep of Beinn Bhreagh.”

(Continued below the fold….)

Beinn Bhreagh was Bell’s estate near the town of Baddeck, Nova Scotia. When he purchased the property, some sheep came along with it. Or as he put it “I found myself to be in possession of a flock of sheep; and in the spring of 1890, one half of the lambs born upon the place turned out to be twins.”

This higher-than-normal percentage of twins seemed a bit odd to Bell, who being a curious person, decided to examine the mothers of the twins and compare them to the mothers who had single births. And he did find a difference.

“Upon examining the milk-bags of the sheep a peculiarity was observed that was thought might be significant. Normally sheep have only two nipples upon the milk bag, but in the case of several of the sheep examined, supernumerary nipples were discovered…..”

i-394e827ce55db21aa7632467ed2918a8-sheep.bmp Bell further saw that the extra nipples were not functional, although some had three or four nipples instead of just two. Furthermore, the sheep that had extra nipples seemed to be more likely to bear twins (43% vs 24% for the normally-nippled sheep.) So he thought it’d be fun to “make an extended set of experiments to ascertain 1) whether, by selective breeding, the extra nipples could be [made functional], and 2) whether ewes possessing four nipples instead of two” were more fertile and were more likely to have twins.

As to the first goal, Bell’s breeding program eventually yielded five and six-nippled sheep (and he expected seeing even more nipples, even eight!) and at least four of the nipples were functional. And sadly, his second hypothesis as to the multi-nippled sheep being more fertile, was disproven. Although, he felt that this had to do with the small sample size and noted that twins born to the multi-nippled mothers gained more weight although they were born smaller than normal. His hope was to impart upon the flocks of America genes from his sheep for “twin-bearing stock [which] would do much to promote this important industry by enabling farmers to make a double profit…”

Well whether that was ever accomplished, the article doesn’t say, but Bell did mention an offer of free pamphlets to any interested members of the academy.

Hat tip Laura Shirtcliff for the paper!


  1. #1 Bram Cohen
    July 17, 2007

    This sheep may have five nipples, but it only has two asses! It is of no use to me!

  2. #2 Kate
    July 17, 2007

    Not to further detract from the illustrious (and amusingly agricultural!) career of Mr. Bell, but he was not in fact the inventor of the telephone, simply the first to patent it.

    The honor of invention has been recognized as that of one Antonio Meucci, an Italian immigrant who couldn’t afford the patent –

  3. #3 Shelley
    July 17, 2007

    Thanks for pointing that out Kate! After reading his wiki entry in depth I now see there was some kinda conspiracy to keep Meucci’s patent out (ie, “losing” the paperwork), and Bell’s in.

  4. #4 Charlie (Colorado)
    July 17, 2007

    I love it when you talk about nipples.

    And sheep.

  5. #5 Bob Abu
    July 17, 2007

    I thought Bell was working on a device to help his deaf girlfriend, later wife, and this hearing aid device morphed into the telephone. Anyone know if this is true or an urban legend?

    By the way did Bell actually steal the Italian inventors idea or was it just a coincidence that he came up with the patent at the same time?

  6. #6 laird
    July 18, 2007
  7. #7 knobody
    August 5, 2007

    it doesn’t just happen in sheep. i have a cat with an odd nipple. to my knowledge, he’s never had any kittens however.

  8. #8 Ed Hird
    October 9, 2010

    What a remarkable range of scientific interests. Alexander Graham Bell had a remarkable impact in so many ways. I commend to you the article “Alexander Graham Bell: Inventing the Future”:

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