The skull of the real-life bear that inspired the fictional character Winnie-the-Pooh is now on display at a London museum. Curators at the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum only recently identified the skull of the Canadian black bear originally named Winnipeg.
Winnie served as the inspiration for A.A. Milne’s immortal children’s literature character Winnie-the-Pooh, but she led an interesting and colourful life even before she was immortalised by Milne.
At the outbreak of WWI, she was discovered by soldier and veterinarian Harry Colebourn for sale on the side of a Canadian road. He bought her for $20, named her after his home town in Manitoba, Canada and took her off to war with him. In England she became a mascot for the Fort Garry Horse, a cavalry regiment, to which Colebourn was attached as a vet. When Colebourn was deployed to France after the war, he lent her, and later donated her, to the London Zoo, where she became a star attraction known for her friendliness.
In the early twenties, writer Alan Alexander Milne took his son Christopher Robin to the zoo, where the boy was so taken with the bear that he renamed his own teddy bear, hitherto known as Pooh-Bear, Winnie.
Winnie’s literary debut was a Christmas story in the Evening Telegraph. The book was published the following year, but the real Winnie died of old age in 1934. At the time of death, her teeth had fallen out, probably due to the sweets she was given by children like Christopher Robin (she preferred condensed milk to honey). She lived two years longer than the average lifespan of a Canadian black bear in the wild. Even had Milne not immortalised her, her place in immortality would be secure. Her remains were donated to a dental researcher whose work continues to be studied by biologists and zoo vets treating animals in captivity.