F.D.C. Willard: How a feline physicist took on atomic science

The true story of the Siamese cat who authored 2 scientific papers

April 3, 2023

Fdc Willard Original April Opt
Physicist F.D.C. Willard, aka Chester Credit: Google Scholar

Labbies are passionate about nuclear physics, scientific collaboration — and cats. So, in honor of National Siamese Cat Day (April 6), we tip our hat to a kindred spirit from nuclear science’s history: F.D.C. Willard, the first feline of physics scholarship.

In 1975, F.D.C. Willard co-authored a paper about atomic behavior, “Two-, Three-, and Four-Atom Exchange Effects in bcc3 He.” The Physical Review of Letters published the paper. Willard, a Siamese cat, shared the writing credit with human Jack H. Hetherington, a physicist and mathematician at Michigan State University. The paper was prodigious accomplishment, as F.D.C. Willard was only seven years old at the time of publication.

Some secrecy surrounded the collaboration between the two researchers. F.D.C. Willard was actually a nom de plume. His true name was simply Chester. The more formal attribution stood for “Felis Domesticus Chester,” and Willard was the name of the cat’s father. Hetherington later claimed that he had been the sole author of the paper, and that he attributed credit to his cat, Chester, as a way to minimize edits to the original manuscript. According to Hetherington, he had mistakenly used the plural “we” instead of the singular “I” throughout the document, which he had laboriously typed on a typewriter. Not wanting to retype the paper, he took a shortcut by adding F.D.C. Willard as co-author.

However, some doubt exists about the supposed lack of F.D.C. Willard’s contribution to the publication, as he was later the sole author of a paper about solid helium 3 in the French journal Recherche. While he was clearly fluent in French, perhaps the four-legged physicist’s demonstrated reluctance to speak to the press on his own behalf accounts for the widespread support of Hetherington’s narrative.

While speculation remains, it is worth noting that no animosity existed between the two researchers, and they remained lifelong companions, with Hetherington frequently referencing F.D.C. Willard in footnotes of subsequent publications.

F.D.C. Willard (Chester) passed away in 1982, a notable contributor to the field of atomic research. He was a good boy.