Winnie-the-Pooh, star of the children's books by A.A. Milne, was famously inspired by the teddy bear of Christopher Robin, Milne's son. That teddy bear was named after Winnie, a real, friendly black bear that Milne and Christopher used to visit at the London Zoo. His interaction with Winnie, and other bears, is described (and presumably dramatized) in the introduction to Winnie-The-Pooh:
So when Christopher Robin goes to the Zoo, he goes to where the Polar Bears are, and he whispers something to the third keeper from the left, and doors are unlocked, and we wander through dark passages and up steep stairs, until at last we come to the special cage, and the cage is opened, and out trots something brown and furry, and with a happy cry of "Oh, Bear!" Christopher Robin rushes into its arms. Now this bear's name is Winnie, which shows what a good name for bears it is, but the funny thing is that we can't remember whether Winnie is called after Pooh, or Pooh after Winnie.
That bear, Winnipeg (nickname: Winnie) is now dead, and children curious about the origins of their favorite, fictional, bear friend can come face to face with a very real, toothless skull.
Winnipeg's skull is now on display at the Royal College of Surgeons' (RCS) Hunterian Museum in London. In a statement, the institution explain how the bear became a Canadian wartime mascot and ended up at the zoo:
Soldier and trained vet, Captain Harry Colebourn bought Winnie when she was a bear cub, and he was en route to fight in the First World War. He had enlisted to look after the cavalry units and named her Winnipeg after his home city in Manitoba, Canada. Cpt Colebourn’s regiment travelled to Europe at the beginning of the war and he brought Winnie as their mascot while they trained on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. When the regiment was deployed to fight in France in 1914, he left Winnie at London Zoo.
Winnie's reward for living through the war was, apparently, honey and other sugary food, fed to her directly by children. A sweet practice that likely contributed to her dental woes. The BBC reports the findings of dental surgeon and curator of an RCS museum Sir James Frank Colyer, who was given the skull after Winnie died in 1934:
An examination of the bear's skull has shown that she had lost most of her teeth in old age — and [Hunterian] museum director Sam Alberti suggests that this could have been because of children feeding her honey or sticky buns… the remains of the real Winnie last appeared in a 1930s text book about the dental health of animals.
Alberti told the BBC he recognizes that it might be weird for children to see Winnie's remains. "We thought really hard about bringing her out on display, because this isn't Winnie-the-Pooh, a cuddly fluffy bear wandering around. This is a skull."
But, he added, all animals have skulls, and we can learn from each of them. "The skull is here alongside the skulls of many other animals. We took a lot of animals who died in London Zoo to understand their anatomy, the science behind these animals."
Consider it a lesson on Winnie the Pooh, science, dental health, and death.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.