“Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine” Site Support Notebook

Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine
Site Support Notebook

[Banner 1: Potions]

Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine



Illustration of an apothecary lesson
Hieronymus Brunschwig, Liber de Arte Distillandi de Compositis, 1512



Illustration of an owl
Konrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium, 1551


[Intro text]

In 1997, British author J. K. Rowling introduced the world to Harry Potter and a literary phenomenon was born. Millions of readers have followed Harry to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where he discovers his heritage, encounters new plants and animals, and perfects his magical abilities. Although a fantasy story, the magic in the Harry Potter books is partially based on Renaissance traditions that played an important role in the development of Western science, including alchemy, astrology, and natural philosophy. Incorporating the work of several 15th- and 16th-century thinkers, the seven-part series examines important ethical topics such as the desire for knowledge, the effects of prejudice, and the responsibility that comes with power.This exhibition, using materials from the National Library of Medicine, will explore Harry Potter’s world and its roots in Renaissance magic, science, and medicine.


[History text]


“There was a lot more to magic, as Harry quickly found out, than waving your wand and saying a few funny words.”— Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J. K. Rowling

(HP quote)


(Flamel card)



“...do not forget to pray to God to bestow on thee the understanding of the reason of the truth of nature...”—Nicolas Flamel, as attributed in Testament of Nicholas Flamel, 1806

Nicolas Flamel, La Metallique Transformation, 1618

(History quote)


Aurifontina Chymica; or, A collection of fourteen small treatises concerning the first matter of philosophers..., 1680


Alchemy, the process of transforming base metals, figures heavily in the plot of the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, published in the United States as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The primary goal of alchemy was to create the Philosopher’s Stone, believed to turn all metals into gold and to produce an elixir that would grant eternal life. One of history’s most famous alchemists, Nicolas Flamel, is featured fictionally in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as the creator of the magical Stone. Many from Flamel’s time believed that the 15th-century scholar and scribe had successfully created the Stone and, despite his death in 1417, the legend of his immortality continued. Although the Philosopher’s Stone is now known to be a myth, Flamel and other alchemists’ attempts to create it by experimenting with metals influenced the development of modern chemistry.



This exhibition is brought to you by the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health
Curated by Elizabeth J. Bland
History of medicine consulting by Mark A. Waddell, Ph. D.
Designed by Howard + Revis Design Services


[Banner 2: Monsters]



[Harry text]



“Of the many fearsome beasts and monsters that roam our land, there is none more curious or more deadly than the Basilisk, known also as the King of Serpents.”—Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry library book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling

Illustration of a basilisk
Konrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium, 1551

(HP quote)


“I heard that on the edge of Germany near Styria, many flying four-legged serpents resembling lizards appeared, winged, with an incurable bite...”—Konrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium, 1551

Illustration of a dragon
Konrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium, 1551

(History quote)


At Hogwarts, Harry not only learns magic spells, charms, and potions, he is also taught about the natural world and its uses. This knowledge helps Harry and his friends survive innumerable adventures and ultimately defeat the villainous Lord Voldemort. For example, armed with information about the basilisk, Harry knows to avoid its fatal stare and to use its highly venomous fangs to destroy fragments of Voldemort’s soul. And when Harry encounters a dragon in the Triwizard Tournament, he knows from his studies to have a healthy respect for the creature, ensuring the young wizard’s survival. Although they consider dragons highly dangerous creatures, wizards have created nature reserves with specialized caregivers to ensure the creatures can thrive without harming people. Dragons also have valuable magical traits—various parts are commonly used in potions and their heartstrings often compose the magical core of wands.


[History text]



(Gesner card)


“I have noticed a relationship between science and natural philosophy...those writings interest me the most which deal with minerals, plants, and animals.”—Konrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium, 1551

(History quote)


“Theriac even promises to make old age more peaceful, life longer, and one’s health more stable ...”— Konrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium, 1551

Illustration of an apothecary mixing theriac
Hortus Sanitatis, 1491

(History quote)

Like Harry’s professors, 16th-century Swiss naturalist and physician Konrad Gesner appreciated the knowledge gained by studying nature. His most famous work, Historiae Animalium, is considered one of the first examples of modern zoology. Unique to its time, the book included not only Greek and Biblical descriptions of animals, but also information Gesner had gained from dissection. Like many of his contemporaries, the naturalist believed that basilisks and dragons existed and he catalogued their medicinal uses alongside those of their reptile cousin, the snake. For example, Gesner wrote about dragon fat’s success against creeping ulcers and viper flesh’s effectiveness in theriac, a poison antidote and cure-all commonly used until the late 19th century.


[Banner 3: Herbology]



[Harry text]



“Three times a week they went out to the greenhouses behind the castle to study Herbology...where they learned how to take care of all the strange plants and fungi, and found out what they were used for.”— Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling

Illustration of a botany discussion
Hortus Sanitatis, 1491

(HP quote)


Detail of illustration of a female mandrake root
Hortus Sanitatis, 1491


Because plants and their uses are important to wizards, all students at Hogwarts are required to take Herbology. In Harry’s second year, he learns how to grow mandrakes, real plants studied by historical botanists. Although it isn’t his favorite subject, the young wizard soon comes to appreciate Herbology when he discovers that mandrake is the key ingredient of a potion that will cure his severely injured classmates. In his fourth year, Harry is once again reminded of the value of studying plants when he must find a way to breathe underwater during the Triwizard Tournament. Harry’s classmate teaches him about gillyweed, a fictitious plant that, when ingested, gives its user fins and gills.


[History text]



“Instead of roots, a small, muddy, and extremely ugly baby popped out of the earth. The leaves were growing right out of his head. He had pale green, mottled skin, and was clearly bawling at the top of his lungs.”— Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling

Hortus Sanitatis, 1491

(HP quote)



Historically, scholars believed that studying plants could provide clues as to how nature works and, in 1491, publisher Jacob Meydenback compiled earlier writings into the Hortus Sanitatis. This single volume catalogued hundreds of plant species and their uses, including those of the poisonous mandrake. At the time, many believed that mandrake roots resembled the human figure and possessed magical powers including the fatal scream fictionalized in Harry Potter. Historical botanists and physicians also recognized the mandrake’s medicinal value and sometimes used small doses of the plant as an anesthetic.


[Banner 4: Magical Creatures]




“Stories about the medicinal values of a unicorn’s horn, especially that it is an antidote to poisons, may have originated from similar Asian beliefs about the rhinoceros horn.”—Konrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium, 1551

Illustration of a unicorn
Konrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium, 1551

(History quote)


“The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain something pure and defenseless to save yourself, and you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips.”—Firenze the centaur to Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J. K. Rowling

Illustration of a bihorn species of unicorns
Ambroise Paré, Les Oeuures d’Ambroise Paré, 1585

(HP quote)


In Harry Potter, unicorns are considered sacred and pure creatures that should only be used in magic without harming the animal in any way. The evil Lord Voldemort disregards such warnings and cruelly slaughters several unicorns for their magical life-giving blood, exposing his disregard for the natural world. Although Voldemort learns about the creatures that can benefit him, he ignores and underestimates the value of those that do not. Harry, on the other hand, is open to all that the natural world has to offer, a trait that ultimately helps the young wizard end Lord Voldemort’s violent reign.


[History text]



“... Sirens, Nereides, or mere-maides, who (according to Pliny) have the faces of women, and scaley bodies, yea where as they have the shape of man; neither yet can the forementioned wed confusion and conjuction of seeds take any place here, for, as we lately said, they consist of their owne proper nature.”— The Workes of Ambrose Parey, translated out of Latine, 1634

The Workes of Ambrose Parey, translated out of Latine, 1634

(Harry quote)


(Paré card)


The influential surgeon Ambroise Paré, noted for using less invasive procedures than his contemporaries, believed that studying nature was important to understanding the world. Paré believed that everything on earth had been perfectly created, including the odd and unusual creatures he often wrote about in his works. For example, although not wholly convinced the animal existed, the surgeon included unicorns in his writings because of the numerous accounts of sightings and the creature’s purported medicinal uses. Unicorn horn, such as that of the bihorn species Paré described, was commonly believed to neutralize poisons and many apothecaries claimed to stock it.


[Banner 5: Fantastic Beasts]

Fantastic Beasts


[History text]


“We wizards have mistreated and abused our fellows for too long, and we are now reaping our reward.”—Albus Dumbledore to Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J. K. Rowling

(HP quote)


“Apparently she loathes part-humans; she campaigned to have merpeople rounded up and tagged last year...”—Sirius Black to Hermione Granger, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J. K. Rowling

Illustration of merpeople
The Workes of Ambrose Parey, translated out of Latine, 1634

(HP quote)


Detail of a centaurfrom an illustration of the human body and the astrological signs that govern it
Joannes de Ketham, Fasciculo de Medicina, 1493/1494


Although the wizards of Harry Potter value learning and teaching about the world around them, they do not always respect the creatures in it. Merpeople and centaurs, known in the series as “half-breeds,” are forced to live on segregated lands and are subject to laws in which they have no say. Several of Harry’s mentors are bothered by the inequalities forced on these creatures and feel that wizards could benefit by learning about many different magical cultures. In Harry’s fifth year, Hogwarts’ headmaster Albus Dumbledore employs Firenze, one of the few centaurs to interact with wizards as many of his kind are angered by their dwindling lands and sub-human status. Firenze’s Divination class, where students learn about reading the future, is one of the first times most of the young witches and wizards have ever seen, much less interacted with, a centaur.


[History text]



(Paracelsus card)



“All things that we use on earth let us use them for good and not for evil.”—Paracelsus, De Religione Perpetua, 1533

Paracelsus, Aurei Velleris oder der Guldin Schatz und Kunstkammer, 1598

(History quote)


Paracelsus, who appears as a sculpture in Harry Potter, was a 16th-century physician and alchemist notorious for criticizing the medical practices of his time. For example, he argued that bloodletting, a popular medical cure-all, would do more harm than good to the patient. Paracelsus’s own treatments were less invasive than those of his fellow physicians and, therefore, less likely to cause fatal infections. The alchemist was among the first to use chemicals and minerals in his remedies because he believed that the body was a microcosm of nature and needed substances from the earth to maintain good health. Unlike most of his fellow physicians, Paracelsus appreciated what other cultures could teach about healing. During his countless travels, he sought advice from diverse sources, including barbers and wise women. Paracelsus also held the unorthodox views that medical treatment should be a basic right and that nature should be protected, not exploited.


[Banner 6: Immortality]



[Harry text]



“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”—Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling

(HP quote)


Illustration of an alchemy workshop
Johann Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum, 1618

Asset not associated with a quote—note text change


“There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!”—Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J. K. Rowling

Illustration of a phoenix
Hortus Sanitatis, 1491

(Harry quote)

Or since the other phoenix is prominent on the button?

Detail of a phoenix from the illustration, De Lapide Philosophorum

Andreas Libavius, Praxis Alchimiae, 1604


Throughout the seven-book series, Harry Potter makes crucial decisions about the fate of all living things as he attempts to thwart the villainous Lord Voldemort’s unending quest for a racially-pure wizard state, ultimate power, and eternal life. Although he struggles with fear of becoming an evil wizard like Voldemort, Harry is reminded by friends and mentors that his compassionate and unselfish use of magic sets the two apart. Time and again, the young wizard appreciates all the natural world has to offer, develops friendships with ostracized creatures and racially “impure” wizards, and uses his power to help others, even at the risk of his own life. Harry’s desire to do what is right helps him to defeat Lord Voldemort, keeping all the young wizard loves safe from harm.


[History text]



(Agrippa card)



“Magic comprises the most profound contemplation of the most secret things, their nature, power, quality, substance, and virtues, as well as the knowledge of their whole nature.”—Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, De Occulta Philosophia, 1533

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, De Occulta Philosophia, 1533

(History quote)


Like Harry, many Renaissance alchemists, naturalists, and physicians struggled with the responsibilities that came with their attempts to understand the world. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, a noted 16th-century occultist, alchemist, lawyer, physician, and, in Harry Potter, a wizard trading card, wrote one of the most famous works on magic, De Occulta Philosophia. Agrippa often criticized the politics, culture, and religion of his time and felt that the ancient magic included in his writings could benefit humanity. The scholar hoped that De Occulta Philosophia would show that ancient magic could be manipulated like a practical science, though he cautioned that any use should be sacred. Agrippa believed that only those with respect for nature could successfully control it and that those who used magic for selfish or immoral reasons would risk their very souls.