What's with Chickens?

Charles Greifenstein is in charge of researcher services, the manuscript department, and security policies. He has an MA in English...

Image above: Sketch of two chickens, Titian Ramsay Peale, n.d. APS Digital Library.

Most people probably don’t realize how important chickens have been in biological research.  From Louis Pasteur (he used chickens to develop a cholera vaccine) onwards, chickens, their eggs, and embryos have served science.

The APS Library has among its collections two in which the chicken features prominently.  One such collection is the papers of Hubert Dana Goodale (1879-1968). Goodale spent most of his career at Mount Hope Poultry Farm. Goodale, working with both cattle and chickens, was a key person in developing index breeding, which is a sophisticated way of breeding by weighting the desirability of multiple traits and evaluating progeny rather than pedigree. While Goodale’s goal was making better chickens for commercial use, his research contributed to the understanding of selection and evolution. Evidence of the research abounds in his papers, including one of the more unusual items in the collection: chicken feathers.

chicken feathers
Cock and hen feathers, 1924-1926, Hubert Dana Goodale Collection. APS Library.

The second collection highlights the significant role that chickens played in cancer studies. Peyton Rous (APS 1939), working at the Rockefeller Institute in 1911, used cell-free filtrate from chicken tumors to demonstrate that the filtrate had in it an infectious agent that caused the same types of tumors in healthy chickens. As has happened with other scientific discoveries, Rous’ findings were not accepted as relevant to human cancers, since his early research was based on birds, not mammals. By the 1950s, however, increasing evidence supported the viral origins of tumors in mammals, and Rous, his research finally recognized for the pioneering effort it was, received the Nobel Prize in 1966—55 years after his research had been published.

Photograph of scientist
Peyton Rous, Peyton Rous Collection. APS Library.

Without the special characteristics of chickens and their eggs, science would still be scrambling in the dark for a deeper understanding of cancer and other diseases.