Ode to The Cat

By Melanie Peffer

Melanie is on faculty at the University of Colorado Boulder. She is the author of the best selling Biology Everywhere: How The Science of Life Matters to Everyday Life. When not writing, Melanie enjoys playing her flute and piccolo and enjoying all that Colorado has to offer in the great outdoors with her husband and son. Visit her on the web at www.biologyeverywhere.com.

This is Pixie.

Pixie is almost old enough to drive (if such a thing were possible…) – and over the last 14+ years, she has assisted with every major work I’ve written.

From my dissertation to my book to my TED talk to creating my online courses – she’s supervised every word.

For a domestic shorthair found under a bush by the Beaver County Humane Society, she’s lorded over my writing first in Pennsylvania, then Georgia, and finally in Colorado.

As various laptops have come and gone, she’s ensured that her fur has liberally coated each and every keyboard.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, she assisted in teaching my students at the University of Colorado Boulder. She often contributed a hearty MEEEEOOOOWWWW to class discussions. Pixie also provided much-needed smiles to both my students and me during the seemingly endless hours of zooming.

Insert a little throat clearing here:

My Pet The Scientist: A Dissertation on Furry Friends as Co-Authors.

It has previously been shown that . . .

Yes, I cringed as well. If I had a dollar for every time I read that, or a similar sentence, in a scientific article, I’d be rich.

Although cringeworthy, passive voice is quite common in scientific papers. Some manuscripts represent large consortiums of authors worldwide and specifying who did which part in the manuscript can get unwieldy. Hence the need for passive voice, particularly in methods sections.

I start to object when it bleeds over into other aspects of the paper, like in the introduction section, where I often see sentences like the above example.

How do we go from active to passive voice? Add in the actor.

In J.H. Hetherington’s 1975 paper on atom exchange, he used “We” through the manuscript. However, as a single author, using we doesn’t make sense. Solution? Add in a coauthor, one F.D.C. Willard.

The Estimable F.D.C. Willard

Rather than re-write the manuscript, Hetherington added his Siamese cat as an author. The F.D. stands for Felis domesticus – the Latin name for a cat. C for Chester, the kitty’s real name. And Willard was for Chester’s father. And so, F.D.C. Willard was born.

This wasn’t F.D.C. Willard’s first appearance either. He’s listed as the sole author on another work and even has his own Google Scholar profile.

F.D.C. Willard isn’t the only pet to earn its name on the byline of a scientific article out of a desire to avoid the passive voice.

In 1978, immunologist Polly Matzinger co-authored a paper with Galadriel Mirkwood. Name ring any bells? Clearly, Polly was a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the RingsGaladriel Mirkwood was Matzinger’s pet Afghan Hound.  

I can’t help but picture these scientists slaving away over their typewriters with their furry friends for comfort. I imagine that said pet may have been in the room at the time to inspire their human’s solution to the vexing issue of passive voice in science writing.

My pet the artist: Furry friends leaving their mark on the owner’s works. 

Having a cat…or baby for that matter…is the co-creation of exciting works.

Usually by walking on a keyboard. Whether that keyboard is on a piano or computer.  

Although receiving mysterious e-mails is largely innocuous (Dear Helen, Thanks for stopping by! Aslkjdalksdlkhsiwbdaslj) – some cats cause their owners real grief. Padma, a British kitty, decided to attack an expensive portrait their human was restoring – completely destroying it in the process.

Pets have been adding their own creative touches to their owner’s work for a long time.

When I visited the Museum of London in 2018, I chuckled to see this scrap of Roman clay tile on display. A kitty must have walked through the wet tile before it set.

Cats sure are helpful. Cough, cough.

Cats aren’t only limited to literary assistants. Freddie Mercury had a feline named Delilah. This particular diva clawed, cuddled, bit, and bumped and apparently peed all over expensive antiques. Absolutely charming.


Lazing about in the sunshine while I furry-ously type.

Whether it’s keeping my hands warm, reminding me to get up and walk around, or offering moral support, Pixie is my writing buddy.

What type of creature is your muse? Tell me about it on Twitter, @Melanie_Peffer.

The Cat in History

Historical Cats Behaving Badly (Normally)

Yes, Your Cat Is Plotting Murder

Sad Cat Diary: The Plight of A Cat

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