Harry Potter: Magic, Myth and Happy Birthday!

Two famous people, one real and one fictitious, both tightly connected to the other, share a birthday on July 31.

J.K. Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, was born (for real) on this day in 1965. Harry James Potter, her iconic best-selling creation, was fictitiously born 15 years later in 1980.

The Harry Potter series, first published in the United Kingdom in 1997, began with a minuscule print run of 500 copies for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (published in the United States in 1998 as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). As of 2013, the Harry Potter books had sold more than 450 million copies worldwide, making it the bestselling book series ever.

Add to that eight major films, video games, e-books, coloring books, all sorts of memorabilia, and a current play–with its text version being released in print today–and Harry Potter is as close to ubiquitous as any literary character to ever demand a bookmark.

NLM plays a part in Harry Potter’s world, too.

An owl gazes forward, the opening panel of the Harry Potter traveling exhibition visible behind him.

An owl visits Harry Potter’s World at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. (Photo by Stephen Mease, Champlain College)

Like waving a magic wand

In July 2007, two days before the fifth Harry Potter movie, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” was scheduled for release, Patricia Tuohy, head of the NLM Exhibition Program, stopped by to see Stephen Greenberg, reference librarian in the History of Medicine Division.

Greenberg was in the midst of giving a presentation to a group of young visitors in which he showed them La Metallique Transformation by Nicolas Flamel, published in 1618. The Flamel volume was mentioned in the first Harry Potter book.

Flamel, a French scholar, devoted his life to a quest for the philosopher’s stone, a legendary substance in the world of alchemy, the medieval precursor of chemistry, which could turn base metals, such as nickel or copper, into gold and silver. La Metallique Transformation’s connection to Harry Potter was Greenberg’s hook to interest the young audience in the History of Medicine Division’s collection.

“At that time all you had to do to get a young person’s attention was say ‘Harry Potter’ and swish, your audience became transfixed,” said Tuohy.

Tuohy asked if there were other books in the collection that were part of Harry Potter’s world. In the History of Medicine Division, there are many, Greenberg replied.

“Sometimes, good ideas are so obvious, so right, so cosmically aligned, just speaking the words out loud is like waving a magic wand and spreading fairy dust,” said Tuohy.

And so the idea for an exhibition about Harry Potter and the science and history of medicine was born.

15 days later

Flash forward 15 days and Do Mandrakes Really Scream? Magic and Medicine in Harry Potter opened as a special display in the History of Medicine Division’s reading room on July 24, 2007 The experience was, Tuohy recalled, “a magical performance of exhibition wizardry and incredible teamwork under the leadership of Elizabeth Bland, Jill Newmark, and, of course, Steve Greenberg.”

Working days, nights, and weekends, they poured through rare books and incunables from the collection, along with the Harry Potter series (both US and British releases) to find connections like Flamel and the philosopher’s stone.

When Do Mandrakes Really Scream? closed in November, the staff knew a traveling adaptation would have an audience.

“There was something magical about Mandrakes and the way the display highlighted the History of Medicine’s collections,” said Tuohy.

A docent dressed as Harry Potter speaks to exhibition visitors.

Muggles at the Palm Beach County Library in Florida learn about the real life books that influenced the Harry Potter series.

On the move

To create a traveling exhibition, Tuohy and her team collaborated with Mark Waddell, PhD, assistant professor in the department of history at Michigan State University. Waddell specializes in Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries and the complex interactions between science, medicine, and culture.

“Mark brought just the right depth of historical knowledge that perfectly complemented Elizabeth Bland’s popular culture analysis of the Harry Potter narrative,” said Tuohy.

Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine hit the road in 2009. The exhibition highlights books from the History of Medicine Division that are mentioned in the Harry Potter series.

Potter is popular

From the beginning, Tuohy and her staff recognized that Harry Potter’s World would be a hit.

“Frankly, I was a little afraid of how popular the show could be,” Tuohy said. “This was 2009, and we were in the middle of a number of other big commitments. Because we’re a small office, I wasn’t sure we could provide quality customer service if we put the exhibition out on the road without some help.”

The solution was to partner with the American Library Association to kick off the initial tour. Once the Exhibition Program had more resources, the exhibition came back in-house, and additional copies of Harry Potter’s World went out on the road.

Currently, five copies of Harry Potter’s World are traveling to libraries and cultural centers across the country, with the exhibition opening tomorrow, August 1, at sites in Troy, Ala., Jensen Beach, Fla., Maywood, Ill., Edina, Minn., and New York, N.Y.

At present, the exhibition is scheduled to travel through late 2018, with openings still available. Bookings run for six weeks.

If you can’t wait, celebrate Harry Potter’s and J.K. Rowling’s birthdays by exploring Harry Potter’s World online. Just don’t spill your butterbeer on the keyboard.