January 8, 2010
|Harry Potter Trading Cards. Download image.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - "There was a lot more to magic, as Harry quickly found out, than waving your wand and saying a few funny words," writes author J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the first of the bestselling books that introduced the magical world of Harry Potter. Now, the University of Alabama at Birmingham's (UAB) Museum of the Health Sciences examines Rowling's inspiration for magic in a traveling exhibit, "Harry Potter's World: Renaissance Science, Magic and Medicine," from Jan. 25 to March 5.
The exhibit shows how Rowling delved into the writings of real 15th and 16th century physicians, scholars and scientists to fashion the basis of magic in the seven Potter books.
"Even scholars in the 1400 and 1500s thought there might be fantastic beasts such as unicorns or centaurs in the world, and alchemists searched for the philosopher's stone, a magic ingredient that would turn metal into gold," says museum curator Stefanie Rookis. "Belief in witches and warlocks, spells and potions was still very real."
Presented by the National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, the exhibit shows that the magic taught at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is partially based on Renaissance traditions that played an important role in the development of Western science, including alchemy, astrology and natural philosophy.
Rowling tapped into this rich tapestry, even incorporating a real 15th century figure, alchemist Nicholas Flamel, into the first book. Flamel and other alchemists' attempts to manipulate metals to create the fabled philosopher's stone influenced the development of modern chemistry.
Renaissance scholars were captivated with the concepts of immortality, with the nature of good and evil and with man's interactions with the natural world, all themes that Rowling pursues in the series.
"The Renaissance was a time of exploration and discovery, when reason, investigation and experimentation - the foundations of the modern scientific process - began to replace superstition," says Rookis. "For example, Renaissance physicians (and Hogwarts students) studied herbology, which contributed to the rise of pharmacology. Many medications in use today are based on proteins or structures found in plants and animals."
Rowling left references to two other early scientists in the Potter books. A sculpture of Paracelsus, a 16th century physician, can be found in Hogwarts, and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, a noted 16th-century occultist, alchemist, lawyer and physician, is the subject of a wizard trading card.
Books from UAB's collection of rare, historical medical texts in the Reynolds Historical Library will supplement the traveling exhibit. UAB has an impressive collection of Renaissance-era works dealing in medicine, science and natural history.
The exhibit runs Jan. 25 to March 5, with a presentation on "Magic Alchemy and Medicine in Harry Potter's World" from Elizabeth Lane Furdell, Ph.D., a professor of history at the University of North Florida on Feb. 2 at 4 p.m. The museum, located on the third floor of the Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences, 1700 University Blvd., is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with special hours on Saturday, Feb. 6 and Saturday, Feb. 20, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The exhibit is free and open to the public.
About UAB Historical Collections
UAB's Historical Collections Unit comprises the Alabama Museum of the Health Sciences, the Reynolds Historical Library and the UAB Archives. The Museum holds instruments, specimens and models used by health care professionals throughout the world and represents seven hundred years of medicine and health.