This winter, Yale has one more reason to consider itself a second Hogwarts.
This week, “Harry Potter’s World” — an exhibit about Renaissance science, magic and medicine in J.K. Rowling’s celebrated series — debuted at the Yale School of Medicine. The exhibit is on loan from the U.S. National Library of Medicine until Feb. 28, 2015. Given the popularity of the subject matter, the library has waited several years for the exhibit to become available. A lecture series is slated to complement the material covered in the six-panel exhibit.
“It’s exciting that Harry Potter can be used to get people excited about medical history,” said Elizabeth Bland, who curated the exhibit at the National Library of Medicine. “Especially given that rare books are not as immediately accessible.”
The exhibit is centered around six themes: potions, monsters, herbology, magical creatures, fantastic beasts and immortality. Each panel focuses on the theme’s appearance in Harry Potter, how it relates to Renaissance magic and medicine, and how it manifests itself in centuries-old texts.
University Clinical Support Librarian Denise Hersey, who chaired the working group responsible for organizing Yale events associated with the traveling exhibit, said the Medical Historical Library and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library own many of the Renaissance-era texts cited in the panels. But because the exhibit is not housed in an environment suitable for display of the rare books, they are only available on request, she said.
Bland said Rowling’s fascination with alchemists led her to borrow from historical figures in alchemy when creating her characters. She said that Paracelsus, who is featured on the Chocolate Frog card — a popular piece of Harry Potter paraphernalia — pioneered medical treatments during the Renaissance. In addition, Nicolas Flamel, who is responsible for creating the philosopher’s stone in the book series, had a posthumous reputation as an alchemist and was rumored to be immortal.
“[Rowling] tried to create a physical, visceral world based on both fictional and real people,” Bland said.
In conjunction with the exhibit, the library will host lectures concerning elements of Renaissance science found in the world of Harry Potter such as pharmaceuticals and immortality.
Exhibition Registrar of the National Library of Medicine Jill Newmark said the exhibit has been traveling to libraries and universities around the world since 2009. Bland said she was originally inspired to curate the exhibit because she wanted to explore parallels between some of the ethical issues presented in the novels and the challenges encountered by real historical figures.
The final count of visitors was approximately 1,180 people, compared with the typical daily average of 200 to 300, Hersey said.
Professor of Psychology Laurie Santos, who will give a lecture on animal minds and magic for the exhibit, said she thinks the lectures will appeal to younger students in middle and high school, making the collegiate world bit more accessible to them.
Katherine Hindley GRD ’17, who teaches a course on magic, science and medicine in the Middle Ages at Yale, said in an email that she hopes the exhibit will stimulate interest in the ways Renaissance science influenced both modern-day science and popular culture.
“I think these concepts were grounded in ‘science’ — it’s just that the system [of studying the world] was different,” Hindley said. “I think it’s important to be reminded that longstanding and deeply held beliefs about the world can change.”