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Harry Potter: Plants, People, & Potions: Potions

This libguide is in conjunction with the National Library of Medicine's traveling exhibit, Harry Potter's World, hosted at UCSD 5/6-6/16/12

Which Potion would You Make?

If you could make a potion, what would it be?

Wands and Their Tree Origins

“There was a lot more to magic, as Harry quickly found out, than waving your wand and saying a few funny words.”

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J. K. Rowling

In the stories, wands play a very important role making potions as well as delivering or mis-delivering magic.  (Remember those slugs?)  The wands of JK Rowling imagining became powerful tools for her witches and wizards  How were those literary characters assigned the type of wood for wands?  Partly it was by happenstance and the other part JK Rowling admits was influenced by the Celtic tradition of assigning specific trees to specific times of the year - kind of like a zodiac sign.  So the wood assigned for many of the characters corresponds to their birthday.

Today, we are still using trees in our "potions" or rather, drugs - from salicylic acid in Birch trees (an aspirin pre-cursor) to taxol (an overian cancer chemotherapy drug) from the Pacific Yew -  trees can be a powerful ally.

Alchemy -- the Beginnings of Chemistry

Alchemy & Chemistry

Alchemy, the process of transforming base metals, was often practiced in hopes of creating the coveted Philosopher’s Stone. One of history’s most famous alchemists, Nicolas Flamel, is featured fictionally in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as the creator of the magical Stone. In fact, many from Flamel’s time believed that the 15th-century scholar and scribe had successfully created the Stone and, despite his death in 1417, the legend of his immortality continued. Although the Philosopher’s Stone is now known to be a myth, Flamel and other alchemists’ attempts to create it by experimenting with metals influenced the development of modern chemistry.

Illustration of an alchemy workshop,  Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Many feel that alchemists made great contributions to the chemical-oriented industries of the day.  For example, ore testing and refining, metalworking, production of gunpowder, ink, dyes, paints, cosmetics, leather tanning, ceramics, glass manufacture, preparation of extracts, liquors, and perhaps more.

The attempts of alchemists to arrange information on substances, so as to clarify and anticipate the products of their chemical reactions, resulted in early conceptions of chemical elements and the first rudimentary periodic tables. They learned how to extract metals from ores, and how to compose many types of inorganic acids and bases.

The practice of alchemy continued until the 18th century with the birth of modern chemistry. 

Drugs & Medicinal Preparations

Illustration of an apothecary lesson Hieronymus Brunschwig, Liber de Arte Distillandi de Compositis, 1512 Courtesy National Library of Medicine

If alchemy was a chemistry precursor, then an apothecary is the Renaissance equivalent of today's pharmacist.  Trained in the preparation of herbal remides for a wide-variety of ailments, apothecarists combined the everyday and exotic elements to help heal and comfort the sick.

"All substances are poisonous, there is none that is not a poison; the right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy."

Much like the apothecarys of old, today's community, hospital, and research pharmacists must find the right balance of ingredients for the drugs they work with.

18th Century Pharmacy

From the early apothacary to a similar looking 18th century pharmacy (from Köszeg, Hungary)

Hungary. Semmelweis Museum of Medical History, Budapest, a WHO photo