Here’s something you don’t see every day: the skeletal remains of a beloved children’s character. Visitors to London’s Hunterian Museum can now see the skull of the very first Winnie-the-Pooh.
Technically, it’s the skull of the bear who inspired the bear who inspired the Winnie-the-Pooh we all know and love, but let’s not split hairs; she was definitely the original, and her name was Winnie.
Winnie the black bear was adopted as a cub by a Canadian veterinarian and World War I soldier named Captain Harry Colebourn. He named the little bear Winnipeg, after his hometown, and took her along to training camp in England. Colebourn and his regiment were sent to the French battlefront in 1914, but not before the soldier brought Winnie to live at the London Zoo.
Winnie and Captain Colebourn. Image credit: Wikimedia // Public Domain
The tame bear became an instant star at the zoo. Winnie’s keepers were so impressed with her gentleness that they let children into her enclosure to feed her sticky buns and honey. One of those children was Christopher Milne.
Winnie made quite an impression on young Milne, who visited her often with his father. Christopher’s teddy bear already had a name, but he changed it to Winnie to honor his favorite black bear. It was this teddy bear that would eventually inspire Christopher’s father, A.A. Milne, to write about a honey-loving bear named Winnie-the-Pooh. (The “Pooh” part came from another real animal, a swan Christopher met while on vacation.)
The real-life Winnie lived a long life. When she passed away in 1934, her skull was donated to the curator of London’s Odontological Museum, which was then a part of the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS). The curator, Sir James Frank Colyer, was himself a dental surgeon, and he examined Winnie’s skull with great interest.
Image Credit: Royal College of Surgeons, London.
The skull has been in the RCS collections ever since, although it had never been displayed. Curators reviewing the collections recently rediscovered the skull. New analysis of the bone shows that Winnie likely had chronic dental issues, likely due to her sweet tooth and her visitors’ willingness to indulge it.
To see the skull yourself and learn more about Winnie and her life, visit the RCS’s Hunterian Museum in London.
Winnie-the-Pooh fans in the States, take heart: America may not have her skull, but we do have Christopher's teddy bear, which is currently on display at the New York Public Library.