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Harry Potter’s Magic Connection to Real-Life Science on Display at UTHSC Library

The UTHSC library is hosting a traveling exhibit and several events related to the real-world science that provided the basis for some of the magic in the Harry Potter series. Students at Wednesday’s event could learn about the use of plants in medicine and take home seed packets and a lithops plant.

First-year nursing student Mary Mayden says she grew up on the Harry Potter movies.

She may not have read the books, but she was excited when she walked into UTHSC’s Health Sciences Library around lunchtime Wednesday to work with friends on a group project and saw the new exhibit that ties Harry Potter and science together.

“I think it’s beautiful and creative,” she said of the exhibit. “It’s very whimsical.”

The exhibition, called Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine in Harry Potter’s World, is a traveling display from the National Library of Medicine. It shines a light on the real-world Renaissance traditions on which author J.K. Rowling based some of the magic in her popular fantasy series.

“This is a great way for us to introduce some history of medicine concepts in an engaging way,” said Jennifer Langford, an archivist and special collections librarian at the Health Sciences Library. “People of all ages have a very deep love for Harry Potter, and this exhibit is very popular wherever it goes.”

The display includes banners that detail the roots of the potions, monsters, herbology, magical creatures, and immortality concepts Harry Potter encounters during his time at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Visitors can learn about the topics’ connections to Renaissance traditions, such as alchemy, astrology, and natural philosophy, that played a part in the development of Western science.

“I think the whole concept of it is very interesting because when you think of a kid’s fantasy book, you don’t necessarily think of it having any kind of grounding or connection to real-life science,” Langford said. “The National Library of Medicine did a beautiful job of finding those connections and presenting them.”

A set of banners detail the Renaissance-era science that influenced the potions, monsters, herbology, magical creatures, and immortality featured in Harry Potter.

Renee Adamec, a student in the College of Health Professions, enjoyed how the exhibition tied one of her childhood interests to her current studies and future career. “I was in third grade and thinking that herbology was really cool, and now in college, I feel like I’m in potions class in the lab sometimes,” she said. “I love the connection to us here in medicine and medical fields. It kind of inspires you to find joy in your adult career.”

The library is staging several events around the exhibit. Wednesday was all about medicinal plants. Students could take a small plant, a lithops, which is “magic” in that it requires almost no care and is often referred to as living stones due to its pebble-like appearance. Mayden selected one decorated with the symbol for the Deathly Hallows.

For Langford, herbology is the most interesting topic of both the exhibit and the events. “That is a personal interest of mine because I’m a gardener, but also in studying health science, there’s so much contemporary research on the use of medicinal plants, and we’re learning more and more about them all the time,” she said. “It’s not just some kind of folk thinking about medicine and health, we’re backing that up with empirical knowledge.”

In keeping with the Renaissance theme, the library will offer a rare peek into the “restricted section” during an open house of its historical collections Wednesday, November 15. Guests will be able to view several works that date to the Renaissance period, including the oldest book in the collection, a Latin translation of Galen’s work on the pulse printed in 1537.

More information about the exhibit and events can be found on the library’s website. The exhibit can be viewed in the second-floor lobby of the Health Sciences Library through December 2.