12: Rudolf Galloway’s theory

“It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” – Sherlock Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia.

When Rudolf Galloway began keeping records of his breeding experiments with canaries and British finches in 1891, he was ahead of his time.  Initially, he was concerned with the ‘fancy points’ of his birds, but gradually his notes were extended to include observations on ‘colour and quality of plumage, of sex, of eye colour, cinnamon inheritance and other subjects which have much scientific importance at this time’ (1).  The results, when published in Biometrika (1909), provided the basis for one of the first investigations into the history of canary mutations (2).

Alexander Rudolf Galloway was an ophthalmic surgeon who seems to have spent his entire career as a consultant and lecturer in Aberdeen (3), but is better known to bird keepers as the author of The History of the Canary which appeared as the first chapter of Canaries, Hybrids and British Birds (1911) (4). It is a wide-ranging account with an air of authority, and 25 years ago, was the stimulus for my own research into the origins of the Lizard canary and the London Fancy.

The scope of Galloway’s History is sound enough; he picks out many of the key historical sources and quotes from contemporary writings, if not always correctly (5).  Things start to go awry when he embellishes the original text with his own interpretation of events.  Thus when ‘Gesner’ (actually Aldrovandi) describes some canaries that ‘turn their head around and backwards’, Galloway claims it is an ‘occurrence of an early sport in the direction of albinism’ (6)!   It was an extraordinary claim based more on speculation than hard evidence, and a sign of things to come.

Galloway’s fundamental flaw is that he had a theory and was determined to prove it, even if it meant cutting fast and loose with the evidence.  He believed the ‘grey or cinnamon to be the origin (after the wild green) of all our present kinds of canaries’ (7).  His interpretation of ‘grey or cinnamon’ was pretty loose, but essentially the paler the better e.g. ‘one very pale cinnamon (almost white) starling caught by a cat in Aberdeen recently’.  In effect, he applied the term ‘grey or cinnamon‘ to anything lighter than the wild colour (8).

Galloway clear siskin hybrid

Galloway was obsessed: he acquired show birds, wild birds, dead birds and stuffed specimens that displayed the ‘grey or cinnamon’ factor; he kept and hybridised with cinnamon linnets and greenfinches; he examined them and carried out post-mortems on them. He used cinnamon and cinnamon-bred canaries in his hybrid experiments, and if a youngster showed some frilling, clear feathers in the cap, or grizzling, it was the ‘grey or cinnamon’ factor that got the credit (9).  At a stroke, Galloway was able to explain the origins of the Dutch Frill, the Lizard canary and the London Fancy.  It was quite wonderful; everything seemed so simple when you looked at it like that.

Galloway's breeding recordsGalloway may have got carried away in his zeal, but the one thing you cannot criticise him for was a lack of data.  He kept extensive records of his breeding experiments, which ran to eight pages in the Appendix of Biometrika.  He was well versed in the science of genetics, and gave a detailed explanation of Mendel’s theory, but was never able to explain the principles of cinnamon inheritance, even though he got fairly close (10).


So near yet so far: the explanation was published in 1911, the same year as Canaries, Hybrids and British Birds.  That was when Thomas Hunt Morgan and his team at Columbia University presented their findings on sex-linked inheritance from their study of the eye colour of fruit flies.  Morgan went on to win the Nobel Prize for his work on the role of chromosomes; poor Galloway was left with a chapter that was out of date as soon as it was printed.  You can imagine how he felt; he never published anything about canaries again.

Even if Galloway had been able to explain the inheritance of the cinnamon factor, it would have had no bearing on his theory that the ‘grey or cinnamon’ was the fountainhead of canary mutations.  Normally, such a vague theory would have been long-forgotten, but Galloway used it to interpret Hervieux’s list.  Thanks to the popularity of Canaries, Hybrids and British Birds, his interpretation is not only the most misleading, but also the best known.

Hervieux's list by Galloway

Compare it to the other translations of Hervieux’s list and you will see that Galloway was taking liberties.  He translates blond as ‘pale’; duvet becomes ‘slightly frilled’ (even though Hervieux explains that it was ‘down’ next to the body); jaune is not simply yellow, but lemon-yellow.  These were just the preliminaries; his major revelations were yet to come:

No 12, the Serin Agate commun is deemed to be the ‘original Lizard canary’.  Galloway offers no explanation. He then goes through variations of the Agate, and doesn’t even blush when he passes off No 15 as the ‘slightly variegated Frilled Lizard’.  It doesn’t seem to occur to him that any form of frilling would destroy the pattern of the Lizard’s plumage: more tangles than spangles.

No 16, the Serin Isabelle commun is translated as the ‘original cinnamon canary’, and No 17 as the ‘cinnamon canary with pink eyes’.  All cinnamons have pink eyes, so what exactly was No 16?  There is a plausible explanation available, but Galloway doesn’t even ask the question (11).

No 28 Serin Panaché de noir-jonquille & regulier (the regular black and yellow variegated canary) is stated to be the London Fancy.  Again there is no explanation.  Now I have to admit that the London Fancy could fit that description, but so could any other evenly-marked canary, such as the ‘London Folly’.  What puzzles me (but not, it seems, Rudolf Galloway) is No 27 Serin Panaché de noir-jonquille aux yeux rouges.  Galloway declares it to be the ‘cinnamon-green variegated canary with pink eyes’, ignoring the fact that it cannot be a cinnamon if it has black (noir) in its plumage.

Finally, we come to No 29, the Serin Plein, which Galloway is certain means the ‘clear orange-yellow canary’.  That it was a completely yellow canary is undisputed, but Hervieux says nothing about what shade of yellow it was.   Galloway’s ‘orange-yellow’ was mere speculation, but he presents it as fact.

The more you examine Galloway’s analysis, the less credible it becomes.  It wasn’t the lack of data that caused the problem, but his misuse of it.  It is such a shame.  Galloway was a learned man, but his obsession with the ‘grey or cinnamon’  theory blinded him to such obvious anomalies.   Sadly, his translation of Hervieux’s list was a classic example of how, to quote Sherlock Holmes, ‘one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts’.


Throughout this article, ‘cinnamon’ refers to the mutation now termed ‘brown’ by COM and colour canary breeders.  ‘Cinnamon’ is still used by type (or posture) canary breeders.

  1. Canary Breeding. A Partial Analysis of Breeding Records from 1891-1909, Bometrika Vol VII, July & October 1909.
  2. He was beaten to being the first by Davenport’s Inheritance in Canaries (1908).  A flawed study, whose failings Galloway was keen to point out.
  3. You will often see him referred to as ‘Dr. Galloway’, but as a consultant he would have been addressed as Mr. Galloway.
  4. Canaries, Hybrids and British Birds by John Robson, edited by S.H. Lewer (1911).   The chapter on the Lizard canary was copied verbatim from Blakston’s Canaries and Cage Birds (1887-81) but he is not acknowledged as the original author.
  5. Galloway claims that Ray’s Ornithology is a translation of Gesner, but it is actually a mixture of Gesner and Aldrovandi, which Ray makes clear.
  6. Galloway justified this conclusion because of the ’peculiar motion of the heads of some albinotic birds’. Canaries, Hybrids and British Birds, p.14.
  7. His original theory described in Biometrika only mentions the cinnamon as the source of all kinds of canary.  This was changed to ‘grey and cinnamon’ two years later, suggesting that he realised his original theory wasn’t quite as universal as he had hoped.
  8. Harry Norman produced four coloured plates for Biometrika, which I have not seen.  It apparently included a ‘variegated buff Siskin x Canary Hybrid showing Lizard cap and silver-spangled back’.  It existed only in Galloway’s imagination and presumably was painted to his specification. In the text, he tells us that he bred two Siskin mules from a strain of canaries with cinnamon blood: one with a cap and another with spangles; but not both on a single bird.  Nevertheless they provided him with the pretext to ‘safely infer that both the Lizard and London Fancy were derived from cinnamon canaries’.
  9. The closest he got was when he noted that ‘half the offspring (from a heterozygous  x homozygous mating – HE) are pure pink-eyed recessives, and the other half are dark-eyed dominants which may prove to carry the pink-eyed character i,e, are heterozygotes’.
  10. Galloway explains elsewhere in the text that the eyes of many cinnamons darken after the first few days.  He also gives guidance on how to look for the pink in the eyes of mature cinnamon canaries.