[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.)]
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…..”
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!