Harry Potter and Modern Medicine at UAB

I’m always game for exploiting any feature that will give the kids some extra educational mileage. Thus I was interested to see the exhibit running through March 5th, 2010 at UAB’s Alabama Museum of the Health Sciences titled Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine.

It’s hard for a museum exhibit to compete with the entertainment kids expect nowadays (Universal Studios Orlando will soon unveil Wizarding World, a Harry Potter inspired section of its themepark). Ancient books and woodcut illustrations under glass didn’t sustain my kids’ attention as I had hoped, but the exhibit was fascinating for this BirminghamMom nontheless.

* Parallels with the Harry Potter stories are outlined along the far end of the exhibit and show how author JK Rowling included themes from Renaissance medicine in her work. You’ll recall some have objected to these books because of references to witchcraft.

Looking over the exhibit, you’re reminded that modern medicine began with witchcraft, astrology and alchemy as practitioners tried all sorts of remedies in a desperate effort to heal. Not until the development of the scientific method and it’s insistence on reliability and replication of results did we drop some of these notions. Even still, I will admit having tried many an old wives’ tale to remedy colic in a young baby here in the 21st century.

* Ironically, to not believe in witches was considered heretical back in the day. There were actually manuals on how to identify witches (displayed is Malleus Maleficarum, or “Witch’s Hammer”, published in 1489). Imagine finding this in the bookseller’s self-help section!  This manual even asserts that Satan “endeavors to propgage the unbelief of witches,” all the better to keep you on the hunt for them. What does all this have to do with medicine? It seems physicians were brought in as expert witnesses at witch trials, since they were to diagnose whether symptoms were caused by natural or supernatural causes. If the physician declared the symptom caused by supernatural forces, it was likely someone was going to burn at the stake or be thrown in the river with some stones as weights. Talk about medical ethics! Awkward.

* You may chuckle to learn that magnets were considered magical (how else to explain them back then?) and to see serious references to unicorn horns and dragons among the medical texts on display, but my money says the state-of-the art protocols employed at UAB  today will look just as primitive to our descendants in 400 years.

* Look for first edition books and highlights from pioneers of modern medicine:

William Harvey (discovered circulation of blood and the function of the heart);

Roger Bacon, said to be a pioneer of the scientific experiment;

A first edition of the Principia, Isaac Newton’s most famous work. Though Newton is revered today for his mathematical discoveries related to laws of motion and gravity, I was surprised to learn he quietly wrote a great deal on the occult and alchemy, topics which were of interest during this time before scientifically based studies. Much of this writing was later repudiated by scientists, but hey, nobody holds this against him.

* Clearly, some topics have had universal appeal since the dawn of the printed word. One book from 1683 is titled, “The Cure of Old Age and Preservation of YouthShewing How to Cure and Keep Off the Accidents of Old Age; and How to Preserve the Youth, Strength and Beauty of Body, and the Senses and All the Faculties of Both Body and Mind.”  Ah, but now modern medicine offers plastic surgery, at least for the youth and beauty aspects. As for the “accidents of old age,” I suppose we have The Clapper and Depends.

If you’re a grown-up Harry Potter fan, and even if you just have an interest in science and civilization, this exhibit is worth your time. There is no admission fee and the most difficult aspect is locating a parking spot, as street level is the best option.

Check it out at the Alabama Museum of the Health Sciences, 3rd floor of Listerhill Library, 1700 University Boulevard (next to an elevated crosswalk across University).

Interesting note: Look for the exhibit case dealing with mandrakes, a plant mentioned in Harry Potter but better known as part of an interesting little exchange between those madcap sisters in Genesis, Rachel and Leah.