There's no bear more famous in children's literature than Winnie-the-Pooh. But the bear that appears in A. A. Milne's books actually has a link to another famous bear, a real one, whose skull is now on display in London at the Royal College of Surgeons' Hunterian Museum.
That creature was a black bear named Winnipeg, or Winnie, as she came to be known. The name came from the home city of veterinarian Captain Harry Colebourn, who bought the bear as a cub and in 1914 brought her to England, where he reported to be part of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps at the start of World War I. Winnie became the mascot of the corps, but when Colebourn's unit was sent to France, he turned her over to the London Zoo. There, she became quite a celebrity with visitors, who were able to feed her honey and other treats.
One of Winnie's biggest fans was A. A. Milne's son, Christopher Robin, who used to visit her regularly and was even photographed standing next to her, feeding her honey from a spoon. Christopher renamed his toy bear Winnie in her honor and both he and the bear found their way into the pages of some of the best loved children's tales ever written.
Winnie died in 1934 when she was 20 -- not bad considering the average life span of black bears in the wild is 10 years, although some have been known to live to 30, according to Defenders of Wildlife.
When she expired, her skull was donated to Sir James Frank Colyer, a dental surgeon who, according to the Royal College of Surgeons, "was the first to report on dental variations and diseases in bears." At that point, however, Winnie's teeth were all gone, which could have been the result of visitors feeding her honey or sticky buns, museum director Sam Alberti told the BBC.
Because Colyer was curator of the Odontological Museum, part of the Royal College of Surgeons' collections, Winnie's skull was eventually put into storage along with 11,000 other animal skulls at the Hunterian.
Now the skull, and Winnie's remarkable story, will be on display for all visitors to the Hunterian as part of its permanent exhibit.
"We had an event at the Hunterian Museum Thursday night called Being Human/Being Animal, which explored the link between human and animal health," museum representative Charlotte Newton told CNET's Crave blog. "The curators of the museum thought Winnie's skull tied in well with the theme of the exhibition because of the human relationship Winnipeg the bear had with visitors at London Zoo, including A. A. Milne's son Christopher, so we decided to put it on public display."
That decision did require some deliberation though.
"We thought really hard about bringing her out on display, because this isn't Winnie-the-Pooh, a cuddly fluffy bear wandering around," Alberti told the BBC. "This is a skull."