10 Cats Who Made History

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 
Socks the cat
Socks for president? The Clintons' cat sits atop the podium in the White House press briefing room, 1994. JENNIFER YOUNG/AFP/Getty Images

Cats rule the internet. If you search online for funny pictures, they're largely of cats. Not babies or old men or, heaven forbid, dogs — but cats. Some of the most visited websites are dedicated to all aspects of the furry felines, too, and there are loads of individual celebrity kitties, such as Grumpy Cat.

Perhaps this isn't too surprising. Cats are some of the most popular pets in the world, after all. And it was a cat who became one of the first media-driven animal celebrities. Morris the Cat strolled onto TV and into Americans' lives in 1969 as the finicky spokes-cat for 9Lives cat food [source: Elliott].


But cats have done far more than just appear in ads, "play" the piano or fall out of trees. Some of them have actually made history. Here are 10 stories of amazing deeds done by cats.

10: F.D.C. Willard, Physics Paper Author

Siamese cat
A Siamese like this one co-authored a physics paper. BSIP/Getty Images

Michigan State professor Jack Hetherington was in a bind. He had just finished typing a physics paper (that would later become quite influential) when a colleague noted he had used the royal "we" throughout the article. Hetherington planned to submit it to Physical Review Letters for publication, but that periodical had strict rules regarding authorship. If an article used plural words such as "we," it had to have two or more people listed as the authors.

As it was 1975, this was quite problematic; changing all of those "we's" to "I's" via typewriter would be a Herculean task. So, Hetherington decided his Siamese cat, Chester, would become his co-author. But Chester needed a more formal and complete name, so Hetherington dubbed him F.D.C. Willard. The scientist came up with "F.D.C." from "Felix Domesticus, Chester" and chose the surname "Willard" because that was the name of Chester's dad. Voilà – Chester was now the co-author of a prestigious physics paper [source: Grundhauser].


Chester's true identity was soon discovered when a visitor stopped at Michigan State to meet the authors. Fortuitously for Hetherington, university officials weren't upset over the deception. In fact, they liked the idea of Chester becoming a feline physics mascot. Editors around the nation weren't amused by the prank, however, presumably including the editors of Physical Review Letters, which had unknowingly published the piece.

Willard/Chester went on to solo-author another physics paper in 1980, though we suspect his owner might have given just a little help — at least with the typing.

9: Trim, Discoverer of Australia

statue of Trim
A statue of Trim, Matthew Flinders' cat, sits on a window ledge in the Mitchell wing of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney. An epitaph written by Flinders called Trim "The best and most illustrious of his race/The most affectionate of friends/faithful of servants/and best of creatures." Addicted/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, people believed Australia was a collection of islands. Not so Capt. Matthew Flinders of England. Convinced Australia was a continent, he sailed there in 1790 and again in 1797. During his latter trip, a cat on the ship gave birth to a litter of kittens. One of them was Trim, a jet-black feline with a white star on his chest and four white paws [source: Roberts].

Flinders and his crew quickly fell in love with Trim, impressed with his energy, exceptional balance, intelligence and unusual indifference to getting wet. Over the next few years, Trim accompanied Flinders several more times as he circumnavigated the Australian continent. Flinders even wrote a long essay on Trim's many virtues — for instance he could do many tricks, such as jumping over a seaman's clasped hands.


Then tragedy struck one year when Flinders and his crew had to stop in Mauritius for repairs. The island was controlled by the French, who were at war with England, so Flinders, Trim and another officer were imprisoned. Later Trim was taken away from the men, supposedly to be cared for by a woman. But she quickly lost Trim, who was never seen again. A grief-stricken Flinders promised to erect a memorial to his accomplished cat, but died shortly after his seven-year imprisonment and before fulfilling his promise.

Flinders and Trim were both eventually honored for their maritime achievements. In 1925, a statue of Flinders was erected at Australia's State Library of New South Wales; an accompanying bronze statue of Trim on a window ledge directly behind Flinders' memorial was built in 1996. Trim's statue is very popular, as is the library's café, named in his honor.

8: All Ball, Raised by a Gorilla

Koko the gorilla
Koko is pictured at age 4 along with instructor Francine 'Penny' Patterson (left) and June Monroe, an interpreter for the deaf. Bettman/Getty Images

Koko loved books about cats. So, one year the gorilla – famous for learning 1,000 words in American Sign Language – asked her trainers for a kitten as a Christmas present. They complied, giving her a stuffed cat. But that greatly upset Koko, who wanted the real thing. She got her wish several months later, when her trainers at the Gorilla Institute near Stanford University let her select a Manx kitten as her birthday present.

Koko, who loved rhyming words, named the fluffy bundle All Ball. The two quickly bonded. Koko mothered her precious kitty, trying to nurse him and often cuddling and petting him. The two also played daily. But a mere five months after Koko adopted All Ball, he escaped the research facility, wandered onto a nearby highway and was run over.


Koko was devastated, first refusing to acknowledge the news and then sobbing. Thirty years passed. In 2015, on Koko's 44th birthday, she received two kittens, Ms. Gray and Ms. Black, whom she bonded with instantly. Her two new pets were probably the best birthday presents she'd ever received since All Ball [sources: McGraw, Kratochwill].

7: Socks, the White House Cat

Socks, photographer
Photographers surround poor Socks, then-President-Elect Bill Clinton's cat outside the governor's mansion in Arkansas, 1992. The cat was such a favorite with the press, the Clintons had to ask them to leave him alone. MIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty Images

When a black-and-white cat jumped into Chelsea Clinton's arms as she was leaving her piano lesson in 1991, it was the smartest move a stray could make. The Clintons adopted the cat, whom they named Socks, and a year later brought him with them to the White House when Chelsea's dad, William J. Clinton, became president.

Socks quickly scouted out several favorite snoozing spots in his new home, including the Oval Office, a wing chair in the West Wing and the office of Betty Currie, the president's secretary. But he wasn't a lazy feline. Hillary Clinton brought Socks with her when she visited kids and senior citizens, and he typically charmed them all.


The public became so besotted with Socks over the years that he was mentioned in the TV comedy "Murphy Brown," appeared on "Larry King Live" – in Muppet form – when Kermit the Frog was hosting, and was even depicted (along with President Clinton) in a series of stamps printed in the Central African Republic.

Socks' halcyon days ended in 1997, when the Clintons added Buddy, a chocolate Lab, to the family. The famous feline resented him so greatly that the Clintons gave Socks to Betty Currie when they left the White House in 2001. Socks lived to be 20 before dying in 2009 [source: Presidential Pet Museum].

6: Snowball, Who Solved a Murder

white cat
An all-white kitty like this one, called Snowball, unwittingly helped pinpoint a murderer. Madina Gajimuradova /EyeEm/Getty Images

Snowball was owned by a Canadian couple living on Prince Edward Island, Canada. In 1994, their son, Douglas Beamish, was living with them after being paroled from prison. During this time, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) found the body of Beamish's estranged common-law wife, Shirley Duguay, in a shallow grave. Beamish became the prime suspect in her murder. The only problem? The RCMP had no evidence [source: Encyclopedia].

But police did find a leather jacket near the crime scene splattered with Duguay's blood. And some of Beamish's friends said they thought he owned such a coat. Close examination of the jacket uncovered 27 white cat hairs inside the lining. If they belonged to Snowball, that would provide a clear link to Beamish. But forensic scientists couldn't determine which cat the hairs came from. So, they contacted a U.S. lab to see if the hairs could be tested for DNA – something not previously done with animals.


The cat hair did match a blood sample from Snowball. But to prove to the jury that other cats on the island didn't have the same DNA, experts tested 20 others. They all had DNA that greatly varied from that of Snowball's. The result: a second-degree murder conviction and 15-year prison sentence for Douglas. In addition, Snowball's case inspired others around the globe to look to pet fur for clues in criminal cases [source: Boyle].

5: Muezza, Savior of the Prophet Muhammad

Russian blue cat
The prophet Mohammad was very fond of cats, particularly one named Muezza (not shown). RenataAphotography/Getty Images

The Islamic prophet Muhammad always loved cats. His favorite feline of all was Muezza. Muhammad was so attached to him, he'd let the cat sit on his lap while he gave his sermons. He'd even drink water that Muezza had previously been lapping up [source: Islamic Information Portal].

There are several well-known tales about Muezza. One says that the cat saved Muhammad from the deadly bite of a venomous snake. Another relates a time when Muezza was asleep on Muhammad's robe when the call to prayers sounded. Although most people would have simply shooed away the cat, Muhammad instead cut off the sleeve of his robe so Muezza could rest in peace. He then stroked Muezza three times to grant him the ability to land on his feet under any circumstances, and also gave him seven lives.


Today, Islam instructs Muslims to revere cats. In fact, mistreating a cat is considered a major transgression [source: Islamic Information Portal].

4: Larry, Chief Mouser of Downing Street

Larry, cat, Downing Street
Chief Mouser Larry comes face to face with a police dog called Bailey as it does security checks outside the door of 10 Downing Street in London. JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images

It was 2011 and there was a bit of a mouse problem at 10 Downing Street, home of Britain's prime minister. So, a staff member plucked a feline from a rescue home to chase the mice away. The brown-and-white tabby chosen was named Larry, and his title was Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office – the first cat to hold the title.

Larry's job performance gets mixed reviews. While Larry has been of marginal help dealing with the mouse problem, he appears to be well-suited to his other duties, such as welcoming visitors and seeking out the best napping spots. He was also known to get into fights with Palmerston, the Foreign Office cat, when they met outside [sources: Lewis]. (Palmerston retired in 2020 and moved to the countryside.)


Some Brits fretted over Larry's fate after the country's 2016 "Brexit" vote, which resulted in a prime minister swap. Some wondered if Larry would be booted out along with David Cameron, since the tabby was officially a Cameron appointee. However, he kept his job under replacements Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and now Rishi Sunak. Larry, say officials, is a civil servant.

3: Oscar, the Grim Reaper

gray and white cat
Oscar (not shown) has an uncanny knack for knowing when residents at a nursing home in Rhode Island are going to die. He sits on their bed until the event happens. Cindy Prina/Getty Images

At first, Oscar's gift seemed a bit creepy. The gray-and-white feline, raised in a dementia unit at Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Rhode Island, could predict when residents were close to death, staying curled up in a ball beside them during their final hours. Some who learned about his gift likened Oscar to the Grim Reaper. But rehab center staff viewed his unusual abilities as a gift, as it gave them time to summon family members to the bedside of their loved ones. Plus, the residents had a comforting presence next to them as they readied to die, even if they weren't fully conscious.

Oscar was adopted by the facility from an animal shelter when he was a kitten; the hope was to raise him as a therapy cat. But he didn't really take to people, at least not those who were healthy. Instead, at about 6 months of age, he began making the rounds with the medical staff, heading into each room to sniff and observe the patients. If someone's death was imminent, he'd hop onto the bed and remain until he or she died, which was typically within four hours. By 2010, he had accurately forecast some 50 deaths and was better at predicting someone's death than the medical staff.


No one is certain how Oscar's gift works. Some theorize he can smell certain scents that humans can't; others posit he's learned something from the behaviors of the nurses at the center. But what is certain is this: Oscar has been thanked by families in obituaries; he's the subject of a book; and there's a wall plaque at the center commending him for his compassionate hospice care. Not bad for a shelter kitty [sources: Fox News, Goldsmith].

2: Grumpy Cat, the Internet Sensation

Grumpy Cat
Grumpy Cat relaxes in her dressing room before making her Broadway debut in (what else?) 'Cats' on Broadway, 2016. Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Internet cats are a dime a dozen, but some actually become millionaires. Exhibit A: Grumpy Cat. This Siamese cat seemed to have a cursed start in life. An underbite and feline dwarfism resulted in a face that appeared to be perpetually frowning. And then one of her owners, youngChyrstal Bundesen, attempted to name her "Tartar Sauce" after the color of her whitish coat, but misspelled it as "Tardar Sauce." So Tardar she was, although many simply called her Grumpy Cat due to her sour puss [sources: Van Syckle, ABC 7].

Tardar's official owner, Chyrstal's mom, Tabatha Bundesen, started a Facebook page and Twitter account for Tardar. Suddenly she became an internet sensation, with millions of "likes" on Facebook and several hundred thousand Twitter followers. Tabatha joined forces with Ben Lashes, a California-based meme manager, to further Grumpy Cat's meteoric rise. (Lashes also reps "Keyboard Cat.")


Tardar's mug was all over T-shirts. She was a spokes-cat for Friskies cat food, and she wrote several books (the inaugural one, "Grumpy Cat: A Grumpy Book," spent 10 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list). Grumpy Cat raked in more than $100 million for Tabatha Bundesen, and was considered one of the most popular viral characters on the internet. Not bad for a dour cat with an underbite [sources: Van Syckle, CCTV, Wilson]. Sadly, Grumpy Cat died in 2019 at age 7 of complications from a urinary tract infection.

1: Stubbs, Mayor of Talkeetna

ginger cat
Stubbs a ginger cat, like this one, was mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska for 20 years. Carla Honings /Eyeem/Getty Images

When residents of Talkeetna, Alaska (population: less than 1,000) weren't thrilled with their choices for mayor in 1997, a majority wrote in the name "Stubbs." The only glitch was that Stubbs was a cat. A kitty, actually, that was born that year.

That's the story Talkeetnans tell, anyway. Talkeetna doesn't actually have a mayor. But the townsfolk took a liking to the orange cat, found in the parking lot of Nagley's General Store and taken in by its owner, and decided the feline should be the town's honorary official. Stubbs, so-named because he only had the stub of a tail, got the job, a Facebook page and lots of love and attention to boot [sources: Peterson, Campbell].

Stubbs retired from public life in 2015, due to old age. He died in 2017, having served Talkeetna faithfully for 20 years. "He was a trouper until the very last day of his life," his owners wrote in a statement announcing his passing. "You are a remarkable cat and we will dearly miss you" [source: Levin].

Famous Cats FAQs

Who is the most famous cat in the world?
The most famous cat in the world is a cross-eyed tabby called Nala. This Siamese/tabby is currently the Guinness World Record Holder for a pet with the most followers on Instagram. Nala currently has more than 4.3 million followers!
What do cats symbolize in literature?
Since cats have nine lives, they symbolize resurrection and rebirth in literature. Since cats are nocturnal, some works of literature have also associated them with darkness while others have linked them with magic, mystery, and even healing.
Did any presidents have cats?
Yes, Abraham Lincoln, Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all had cats. The most famous of these might be Socks, Bill Clinton's cat. Socks even had a book written about him.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Cats Who Made History

I'm a dog person, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. I've always felt cats were too sneaky, independent and unsnuggly for my tastes. But a few of the cats in this piece sound pretty darn cool, especially Oscar. If I end up in a hospice, I like the idea of a cat curling up next to me in my final hours, even if I'm not conscious. Poor little All Ball didn't live very long, but he was beloved by Koko the gorilla – an animal that has always intrigued me – and I remember mourning his death in 1985 along with Koko. I'm thrilled to learn she now has not one, but two, new kitties to love.

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  • ABC 7. "Grumpy Cat To Be Immortalized In Wax By Madame Tussaud's." Aug. 29, 2015. (Oct 23, 2016) http://abc7.com/pets/grumpy-cat-to-be-immortalized-in-wax-by-madame-tussauds/961896/
  • Alaska Public Media. "Sullivan Unseats Begich In Senate Race." Nov. 11, 2014. (Oct. 24, 2016) http://www.alaskapublic.org/2014/11/11/sullivan-unseats-begich-in-senate-race/
  • Boyle, Alan. "Elementary, my dear Fluffy: Cat DNA solves another homicide." NBC News. Aug. 14, 2013. (Oct. 19, 2016) http://www.nbcnews.com/science/elementary-my-dear-fluffy-cat-dna-solves-another-homicide-6C10913900
  • Campbell, Colin. "A Cat Mayor Just 'Announced' His Campaign For Senate In Alaska." Business Insider. Nov. 4, 2014. (Oct. 19, 2016) http://www.businessinsider.com/a-cat-mayor-just-announced-his-campaign-for-senate-in-alaska-2014-11
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  • Grundhauser, Eric. "In 1975, a Cat Co-Authored a Physics Paper." Atlas Obscura. Aug. 30, 2016. (Oct. 19, 2016). http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/in-1975-a-cat-coauthored-a-physics-paper
  • Islamic Information Portal. "The Love And Importance Of Cats In Islam." Feb. 15, 2013. (Oct. 19, 2016) http://islam.ru/en/content/story/love-and-importance-cats-islam
  • Kratochwill, Lindsey. "Koko The Gorilla Gets Two Kittens For Her 44th Birthday." Popular Science. Oct. 16, 2015. (Oct. 29, 2016) http://www.popsci.com/koko-gorilla-gets-two-kittens-for-her-birthday
  • Lewis, Danny. "10 Downing Street's 'Chief Mouser' Is Keeping His Job Despite Brexit." Smithsonian. July 14, 2016. (Oct. 19, 2016) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/10-downing-streets-chief-mouser-keeping-his-job-despite-brexit-180959799/?no-ist
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  • Peterson, Casea. "This Is The Single Craziest Thing You Never Knew Happened In Alaska." Only In Your State. March 19, 2016. (Oct. 24, 2016) http://www.onlyinyourstate.com/alaska/stubbs-cat-mayor-ak/
  • Presidential Pet Museum. "Socks the Cat." July 21, 2013. (Oct. 19, 2016)
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