Harry Potter lecture series explores the fact in fiction

Browse a gallery courtesy of National Library of Medicine

The Sorcerer’s Stone. Deathly Hallows. The Marauder’s Map. Mandrake Roots. Witches and Wizards. These words all sound familiar even to the most causal Harry Potter fan. However, what most “Potterheads” might not realize is that many of these items or characters are actually rooted in fact.

Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic and Medicine, a traveling exhibition from the National Library of Medicine, is currently on display at the Robert B. Greenblatt, M.D. Library. Much of the magical world in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is based on Renaissance traditions. The exhibition aims to explain the facts in the fiction.

The National Library of Medicine has an extensive waitlist for the Harry Potter exhibit. Greenblatt library applied to bring the exhibition to Augusta University almost two years ago. When Renee Sharrock, curator at Greenblatt Library, found out that Augusta University would have the exhibit for six weeks, she began planning a lecture series to go alongside the exhibit.

“When we booked the exhibit, we immediately thought of Dr. Wendy Turner,” Sharrock said. “Her specialty is medieval medicine, and she’s an incredibly engaging speaker.”

Turner is a professor of medieval history at Augusta. She agreed to speak and organized a lecture around the content of the exhibit.

“I teach pre-modern medicine and history and have published work on alchemy and medicine,” Turner said. “Many of my students are interested in Harry Potter and want to know if any of it is real.”

Much of Harry Potter is based on mythology. J.K. Rowling is well-read in folklore and mythology, especially world myths and U.K. myths, explained Turner.

For example, the symbol for the Deathly Hallows is very similar to that of the philosopher’s stone in the middle ages.

“People really thought the philosopher’s stone was an actual object,” Turner said. “They were trying to find something that was a panacea and would stop people from dying. People wanted to cheat death, and Rowling explores that in the Harry Potter books. She’s playing on alchemy and alchemical philosophy.”

Another myth Turner will touch on in her lecture is that of the screaming mandrake root. In Harry Potter, the herbology professor explains to her students that the mandrake root will scream when it is uprooted. However, in reality, mandrake roots don’t exactly scream, but it was believed that they were a dangerous plant to uproot.

“Myth states that a dog needed to pull them out of the ground, at night, with a silver chain,” Turner said. “They believed the mandrake root was a creature in the ground that kind of looks like a human. So, they believed the mandrake root could help relieve a lot of diseases that had to do with the body or mind.”

This myth most likely began because weird things tend to happen when a mandrake is pulled up. Today, the plant is a controlled substance. Turner believes the myth probably started as a way to warn children not to touch the plant.

The tale of the mandrake illustrates how much of the fantasy in Harry Potter is grounded in fact.

Attendees can look forward to these tales and more from Turner’s lecture. She also plans to bring artifacts and props to use during her lecture. She is looking forward to the exhibit and lecture and believes students will enjoy it, as well.

“Who doesn’t like Harry Potter?” she said. “I was fortunate to be in London with students on study abroad trips when two of the books came out, including the very last one. I remember, with my students in tow, we all went to the bookstore and waited in line half the night for the last book to be released.”

Turner’s first lecture was on Thursday, March 3. There will be a follow-up presentation of the lecture on Tuesday, March 15, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the Jeff Maxwell Branch Library of the Augusta-Richmond County Public Library System.

Turner believes the lecture at Jeff Maxwell will bring in a crowd of people.

“Jeff Maxwell often sponsors Augusta faculty to come and lecture nearly every Tuesday night,” Turner said. “They’re trying to involve children in reading. I think my lecture will be successful. I hope it will get students interested in re-reading books, get children interested in picking up the books and will also entertain adults in attendance.”

Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic and Medicine will be on display at Greenblatt Library until March 26. For information about the exhibit or Turner’s upcoming lecture, contact Renee Sharrock at rsharrock@gru.edu.

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Written by
Brennan Meagher

Brennan Meagher is a communications coordinator at Augusta University. Contact her at 706-446-4806 or bmeagher@augusta.edu.

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Written by Brennan Meagher

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