The ancestors of the Burmese are the Siamese and the “copper cat” of Burma (now known as Myanmar). It’s thought that they were temple and palace cats bred and kept by priests. The matriarch of the modern Burmese was a small, dark-brown cat named Wong Mau. She belonged to Dr. Joseph Thompson, who either acquired her from a sailor or brought her back himself from his travels, depending on which story you believe.
Wong Mau was at first thought to be a Siamese with a chocolate-colored coat. Such Siamese weren’t unheard of. “Chocolate Siamese” were described in the 1880s. Their bodies were tan or brown, and they had seal-brown or nearly black points. The seal-point Siamese, also known as royal Siamese, had lighter bodies that contrasted with their dark points and were preferred by breeders and the public. The chocolate-colored cats eventually disappeared in Britain, but they still existed in Thailand and Burma, where they were probably the offspring of natural (as opposed to human-directed) matings between free-roaming Siamese (pointed) and solid-colored Burmese cats. Wong Mau was one of them. It was her destiny to become the matriarch of two new breeds: the Burmese and, later, the Tonkinese.
Dr. Thompson bred Wong Mau to a seal-point Siamese named Tai Mau. His breeding program, in conjunction with breeders Virginia Cobb and Billie Gerst and geneticist Clyde Keeler, produced kittens with beige, brown and pointed coats. The results, including the discovery of the Burmese gene, were so interesting that Thompson published an article on the subject in the Journal of Heredity, the first such piece on feline genetics. The brown cats were chosen to develop as a new breed: the Burmese.
The Cat Fanciers Association began registering Burmese in 1936 but suspended registrations in 1947 because breeders were still using Siamese in their breeding programs. Registrations resumed in 1953 after the practice was stopped.
In Europe, however, the development of the Burmese took a different path. In Great Britain, where there was an even greater lack of breeding stock than in the United States, redpoint Siamese and British Shorthairs were used in breeding programs, and their genetic contribution included additional colors: red, cream, brown-tortie, chocolate-tortie, blue-tortie and lilac-tortie. They eventually became known as Foreign Burmese, or European Burmese.