Although the Bengal cat that most people know and love is far removed from its original ancestor, Asian Leopard Cat, the history of the Bengal breed is nevertheless very fascinating.

Asian Leopard Cat
Asian Leopard Cat

It can be traced all the way back to 1889 when Harrison Weir, in his book "Our Cats and All About Them," initially suggested mating a domestic cat with an Asian Leopard Cat (ALC), which marks the beginning of the breed's history. Although the Bengal cat isn't specifically mentioned because it wasn't yet considered a breed, it does demonstrate that the idea of mating domestic cats and wild cats was given some thought.

In 1927, Cecil Kloss, who was an English Zoologist, wrote to a magazine called Cat Gossip and explained how he had visited the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia and saw a woman caring for Bengalensis kittens, which he believed were a cross between the ALC and domestic cats. 

This is believed to be the first sighting of Bengal kittens, despite the fact that he was unable to stay long enough to verify whether the kittens had survived.

In 1946 Jean Mill, who had the greatest influence on the Bengal cat breed, during genetics class at UC Davis wrote a term paper proposed "crossing the popular Persian breed of cat with the new Siamese breed to make 'Panda Bear' cats. Her professor laughed and said that he had expected "a topic more practical and commercially feasible, such as hybrid corn or cattle." 

Jean Mill, founder of the Bengal breed
Jean Mill, founder of the Bengal breed

Later married and living on a ranch in Yuma, Jean Mill pursued her dream, and was among the first contributors to the Himalayan breed.

In the early 60's, Asian Leopard Cats (ALC) were beginning to be imported to the United States more frequently. The primary drivers behind this were consumer interest and the ALC's beautiful coat, which set it apart from other cats. The Asian Leopard Cat, however, had the temperament of a wild animal, which was a problem so breeders had to cross them with domestic cats in order to reduce "wild cat" traits. 

Some of the earliest recognized breeders of Bengal cats were Robert Boudy, William Engler, Delores Newman and Ethel.

After first generation Bengal hybrids were successfully bred, the idea of crossbreeding to produce hybrid species was promoted to many cat organizations. Despite there was an interest, the breed was still not recognized as a domestic breed.

The name "Bengal Cat" has been attributed to William Engler, a long-time breeder of first generation Bengals. The breeds name, "Bengal", is believed to be derived from "Prionailurus Bengalensis", which refers to Asian Leopard Cats.

In 1963 Jean Mill purchased her first Leopard cat named Malaysia and accidentally bred her with a domestic cat. "Because the animal seemed lonely in my large cage, I put a black tomcat in with my leopard cat to keep her company. Although experts said it couldn't happen, the animals mated and produced a curious little hybrid female named Kin Kin." 

Later that year, Jean contacted researchers at Cornell University, but they gave her little to no hope that Kin Kin would ever be able breed or become pregnant. To everyone's surprise, Jill successfully bred her back to her father because she didn't have another suitable tomcat at the time. Kin Kin gave birth to two kittens, a sweet natured spotted son and a solid black daughter with a bad temper. 

Jean Mill with Kin Kin
Jean Mill with Kin Kin

Unfortunately, the boy was killed by a fall from a shelf onto concrete before she could learn that F1 males are sterile. His black sister Pantherette produced a kitten, but ate it at 2 days of age. Sadly, Jean's husband Bob Sudgen soon passed away, forcing her to sell the farm where she had initially raised her first Bengal and move to Southern California into an apartment. 

Jean gave her cats to the San Diego Zoo were KinKin and Pantherette contracted pneumonitis and died. This ended Jean Mill's early project.

In 1970 feline leukemia was extremely common in domestic cats. Around the same time, it was discovered that the majority of wild cats, including ALCs, were found to have a natural resistance to this illness as well as other feline infections. This knowledge led Dr. Willard Centerwall, a professor at Loyola University, to begin breeding ALC's in an attempt to transfer these immunity characteristics to domestic cats.

Jean Mill decided to restart her "Bengal project" in the 1970s. During her efforts to obtain another Leopard cat, Jean contacted previously mentioned Dr. Willard Centerwall at Loyola University. He agreed to give her Liquid Amber (3/4 ALC), Favie, Shy Sister and Doughnuts after they had donated blood samples for his Feline Leukemia research.

Some of the cats were also given to Gordon Meridith for his little zoo in the Mojave desert. After he became sick with cancer, Jean took five of his cats named Praline, Pennybank, Raisin, Rorschach and Wine Vinegar.

On her trip to India in 1982, Jean saw a beautiful domestic kitten with all-over spots on a shiny golden-orange coat. She decided to import him to USA and named Millwood Tory of Delhi.

He became the Bengal breed's founding male but some Egyptian Mau breeders also used Tory to improve their genetics (often shown as Toby in Egyptian Mau pedigrees). 

Early on, Jean struggled with prejudice, especially after she was accused of introducing wild blood into the Maus, but she also received a lot of help from several Ocicat breeders (notably Gogees). 

Destiny was born to Tory and Praline in 1983. At the time, Jean was unaware that male kittens are usually sterile for the first few generations. Although he was only able to produce kittens for a brief period of time and was only 25% ALC, Destiny proved to be the first viable F2 male. In April of 1986, he and Polyspot surprised everyone with a strange kitten with sparkling golden coat and none of the usual ticking - Silk n Cinders. 

A month later Destiny and Praline had a similarly shiny golden male called Aries. The unusual coat later appeared on kittens at Gogees too, from Millwood kittens of the Cinders line. These was the first glittered Bengals.

When Penny Ante arrived later in 1986, the Bengal really started to gain popularity. In addition to having a leopard-like appearance, Penny Ante was also incredibly friendly and relaxed, and she completely stole each of the 27 shows she attended.

In 1987 Jean got another surprise. Cinders and Torchbearer produced a beautiful new kind of kitten. "She was a spectacular little female with an odd soft, cream-colored coat and weird pattern that looked like drizzled caramel." As a first marble Bengal ever made, she was a sensation on the shows all over the country.  

At first, Jean hadn't intended to include anything except spots in her first standard, but 'by popular demand' the marbles were added, thanks to jewel-like Painted Desert and Emberglow. Their descendants ultimately contributed the 'outlining' gene and horizontal flow which produced Millwood's earliest rosetted spots, most pronounced in Cloud Nine's offspring.

For several months after leaving, Aries came back and had several productive sons, with Rave Review being the most successful. Rave can be found in the majority of SBT pedigrees today if one looks far enough back. 

These original Centerwall/Delhi lines are prized in Bengal pedigrees. They are the show ring winners of today with remarkable rosettes, glitter, pelt, patterns and temperament. Jean Mill

In the next few years, Jean continued to introduce new ALC blood into her line - notable ones being Cameo and Kabuki. To accommodate breeders wanting to make F1 kittens, Kabuki was offered as an open stud to any suitable Bengal female. Most Millwood bloodlines trace in part to Kabuki, including Signature, Etching, Lisa Arvay's Crystal Clear, and David Born's SGC Millwood Shanara of Epsillon.

Jean Mill retired from breeding Bengals in 2007.