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Harry Potter and the Medical Librarians

Harry Potter needed thousands of owl-delivered letters and a visit from the half-giant Hagrid to make it to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But for the next month, Yalies will just need to take a short, chilly walk to the School of Medicine to enter J. K. Rowling’s magical world of potions, spells, and fantastic beasts.

Yesterday marked the opening of Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic and Medicine, an exhibit at the Cushing-Whitney Medical Library. The touring exhibit, which  is sponsored by the National Library of Medicine, aims to explain the real history behind alchemy, herbology, mythological creatures, and many of the other signature features of the Harry Potter book series. The exhibit runs through February 28.

The Medical Library kicked off the exhibit Tuesday with a YUL Ball, an allusion to the magical high school prom Harry attended in the fourth book. More than 50 people gathered into a small library room for the ball; wand-bearing children scurried around bookshelves and Yale physicians made small talk amid bites of pumpkin juice clusters. Posing as Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore, med school deputy dean Richard Belitsky addressed the audience.

“Welcome to Harry Potter’s world,” he said, grinning at the assembled guests from beneath a wizard’s hat and starry velvet robes. Belitsky explained that although the Harry Potter series is clearly a work of fantasy, the magic of the books is inspired by Renaissance traditions and the work of many fifteenth- and sixteenth-century scholars. To celebrate, the Medical Library is sponsoring a series of talks designed to appeal to academics and Potter fanatics alike. Subjects include “Mind Reading: Animal Minds and Magic” and “Herbology: Looking at Food as Medicinal, and Medicinals as Food.”

“If I can conjure up just a little bit left of magic and wizardry,” Belitsky concluded his speech with a bashful smile, “I will try to disappear and make you all forget this moment today.” (His disappearing act was hampered by the copies of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix he was obliged to sign after leaving the podium.)

“I’m very excited by the number of children and adults here, but also how many medical students there are,” said Katie Hart, a senior administrative assistant at the Medical Library. “Harry Potter really does appeal to all ages.”

“I’ve never had a chance to see the Cushing Center before,” said Christofer Hamilton ’15 when asked why he had come. “And, you know, the food.”

Indeed, a variety of Potter-themed treats were scattered on tables around the room, including staples of the book series like Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, Drooble’s best-blowing fun, licorice wands, Cockroach Clusters, pumpkin juice, and—of course—butterbeer.

Other highlights included posters detailing the relationship between the books and real-life medieval science, and a Potter-themed Bingo game. (Questions ranged from “Where in the library is Dobby the house elf located?” to “Who is the Medical Library’s liaison to the department of OB/GYN?”)

“We’ve tried to highlight the connection between what people think of as fantasy or in the past with the present,” said Denise Hersey, a clinical support librarian at the Medical Library. “And Harry Potter is one way to do that because, you know, everyone loves him.”


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

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