A woman dressed in a cloak and a young child pointing wands at each other.

Reflections on History and Harry Potter

By Jill L. Newmak ~

One of the joys of working in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine is engaging with a world-renowned historical collection spanning ten centuries and representing nearly every part of the globe, including beautifully-illustrated unique and rare books authored by great Renaissance scientists and thinkers like Nicolas Flamel, Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa, and Ambrose Paré. If these names sound familiar to you, it is probably because you have read about them in the enormously popular Harry Potter book series. The research undertaken by J. K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter, is evident throughout the books and movies. The historical figures above are all incorporated into Harry Potter’s world, for example, the character Nicolas Flamel is the maker of the philosopher’s stone, believed to be a key to immortality and Cornelius Agrippa is featured on a wizard card found inside a Chocolate Frog treat collected by Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

The history documented in these scientific books and the popular story of Harry Potter converged a few weeks ago at the National Library of Medicine, which celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first publication of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (published in the United States as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone).  The celebration featured the Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic and Medicine traveling banner exhibition alongside a display of the 15th, 16th and 17th century books that influenced the Harry Potter series.

During the week-long exhibition, and the two related public lectures, over 600 visitors, both adults and children, made their way to the History of Medicine Reading Room of the Library. Many had never visited before, and were eager see the display.  Both die-hard Harry Potter fans and newbies alike explored the exhibition with great excitement, often surprised to learn that history and Harry Potter go hand-in-hand.  The excitement and joy was palpable with one visitor telling us “I’m so happy,” and another shared that she “waited weeks to see this!”  A young mother visited the exhibition and returned the next day with her two young sons.  She returned a third day to tell us how her sons had been so moved by seeing the books in the exhibition and the fully digitized books online, that were they creating stories about the animals featured in one of the displayed books, Konrad Gesner’s 16th century Historaie Animalium, and spending an afternoon at their local library.

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Visitors to the exhibition also included school groups, employees of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), visitors to the NIH campus and even a local celebrity, Brooke Miller, the 2017 Miss District of Columbia’s Outstanding Teen, whose advocacy platform involved promoting youth literacy and libraries. One of the most heartwarming visits involved children and parents living at the Children’s Inn of the National Institutes of Health, a hospital hospitality house for children and their families during pediatric research at NIH.  All who traveled across campus from the Inn expressed great excitement when they saw the display, wore the sorting hat, and learned about the collection and programs of the NLM’s History of Medicine Division.  Many sat at tables looking at books and asking questions, and were reluctant to leave.  It was a special moment to see the joy and happiness on the faces of the children and their parents.  They said they would be back for another visit.

Visitors to the exhibition spent quality time exploring the books on display, learning the history they contained and using it to spark their imagination, learning more about the connections between history and Harry Potter, and reflecting on the story they loved so much.

As our visitors valued their experiences, we did also, with one of my colleagues recalling that, for her, “one of the best moments was, shortly after when I was walking back to my office among the attendees of Thursday’s lecture by Dr. Stephen Greenberg, overhearing a couple of lab mates in our reading room reflecting on the two talks of the week. They didn’t plan to go to the lecture together and didn’t know before then that the other was a Potter fan.  They shared their favorite parts of the lectures, and then how and when they first got into the series.  It was heartwarming to see this bond created by having this experience together at the NLM.”

History and Harry Potter do go hand-in-hand. Our exhibition testifies to the popularity of the Harry Potter series, to the power of libraries everywhere to engage the mind, and to the excitement of learning how history influences literature and modern-day life.

An informal portrait of Jill L NewmarkJill L. Newmark is an Exhibition Specialist for the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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