Fans of Harry Potter, the boy wizard at the heart of J.K. Rowling’s book series, are familiar with the name Nicolas Flamel. He created the famous “sorceror’s stone” (featured in the first book), which was said to provide immortality to whomever owned it — so, naturally, the evil wizard Lord Voldermort was eager to get his hands on it.
But what many Harry Potter fans may not realize is that Flamel was a real person. Born around 1340, Flamel was a French scribe best known for his work in alchemy, the transmutation of metals. He died in 1418.
“Flamel was rumored to have created the mythological Philosopher’s Stone, believed to be able to turn all metals into gold and produce an elixir granting eternal life,” according to one of the trading cards from a special traveling exhibit opening next week at Washington Public Library.
Although a fantasy story, the magic in the Harry Potter books is partially based on Renaissance traditions that played an important role in the development of Western science and medicine.
“Harry Potter’s World, Renaissance Science, Magic and Medicine,” which was developed and produced by the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, explores that connection.
Incorporating the work of several 15th- and 16th-century thinkers, the series examines ethical topics such as the desire for knowledge, the effects of prejudice, and the responsibility that comes with power.
“Harry Potter’s World” will be on display in the gallery space just outside the library’s first-floor meeting rooms through Jan. 27.
The library has a series of special events planned to tie-in to the exhibit, including:
• Wizard Week Movie at the library Thursday, Dec. 28, at 1 p.m.;
• Yule Ball at the City Auditorium Friday night, Dec. 29, 6:30-8 p.m. No registration is necessary; and
• Harry Potter Trivia Night Friday, Jan. 19, at 6 p.m. in the library meeting room. Registration will begin Jan. 9. Call 636-390-1070.
‘A Real, Deep Love for Harry Potter’
Washington Children’s Librarian Ruth McInnis came across the “Harry Potter’s World” exhibit more than a year and a half ago and immediately knew it would be a hit with local patrons, especially those young adults who were pre-teens when the first book came out 20 years ago and are now raising their own children.
They plan vacations to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Florida, they send their children to Harry Potter camps (including one at East Central College), and they can’t wait until they’re old enough to begin reading the book series for themselves, said McInnis.
“So we know families are always looking for more ways to enjoy the story of Harry Potter,” she remarked.
“There is just a real, deep love for Harry Potter . . . It’s going to endure. It’s going to be one of those series, like ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ ” she said.
Six Panels, Five Trading Cards
The exhibit includes six panels, which at first glance, may not be all that exciting to children, admits McInnis.
Each panel explores a different topic from the book series — potions, beasts and monsters, herbology, magical creatures, half-bloods and immortality.
Each panel features images of artifacts from the National Library of Medicine’s collection.
The Potions panel, for example, includes images of Flamel and his writings on “La Metallique Transformation (the metal processing).”
The Monsters panel features information from “Historiae Animalium (studies on animals),” by Konrad Gesner, 1551, who, like many of his contemporaries, believed that basilisks and dragons existed. He catalogued their medicinal uses, alongside those of their reptile cousin, the snake.
The Herbology panel shares information from “Hortus Sanitatis” (Garden of Health), a compilation of earlier writings published by German publisher Jakob Meydenbach in 1491.
“This single volume catalogued hundreds of plant species and their uses, including those of the poisonous mandrake,” the exhibit notes.
“Historical botanists and physicians recognized the mandrake’s medicinal value and sometimes used small doses of the plant as an anesthetic. Some believed that mandrake roots resembled human figures and possessed magical powers, including a fatal scream fictionalized in ‘Harry Potter.’ ”
The panels also touch on gillyweed, unicorns, astrological signs and more.
The exhibit includes a series of five trading cards featuring the faces of the famous Renaissance-era people whose work is included on the panels — Famel, mentioned earlier, as well as:
Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, a German occultist who wrote about ancient magic and its practical uses;
Konrad Gesner, a Swiss naturalist whose “Historiae Animalium” (1551) is considered one of the first examples of modern zoology;
Ambrose Paré, a French surgeon whose less invasive surgical techniques were extremely influential in the development of modern surgery; and
Philippus Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, a Swiss physician better known as Paracelsus, who was among the first to use chemicals and minerals in his remedies.
Yule Ball and More
While the exhibit may not appeal to the youngest Harry Potter fans, McInnis and the library’s Assistant Director Kim Brumgard have planned a series of special programming activities to engage all ages and propel the excitement.
The first will be a special showing of the first film based on the “Harry Potter” series on Thursday, Dec. 28, at 1 p.m., in the library’s first-floor meeting room.
Everyone is invited. Adults and children should bring lawn chairs, blankets, pillows . . . , whatever they would like to be comfortable. People also are welcome to bring their own snacks and drinks to enjoy during the film.
The Harry Potter Yule Ball being held Friday, Dec. 29, is expected to be the most popular of the special events. McInnis and Brumgard have been planning it for many weeks.
“Miss Kim and I have always had the desire to do a yule ball,” said McInnis. “We scheduled this (exhibit) intentionally to be around Christmas, so we could use it as a platform for a yule ball.”
A yule ball was featured in the fourth Harry Potter book, “The Goblet of Fire.”
The library is holding its yule ball at the city auditorium because it is a larger space (capacity of 350) and has a higher ceiling — key to McInnis and Brumgard recreating the look of Hogwarts’ magical atmosphere.
Floating candles will hang from the ceiling, and bubbles will fill the dance floor. A black light will make everything glow in the dark.
“Wizards” and “witches” can dress in their finest robes (or semiformal wear) or “muggles” can come dressed in their street clothes. Everyone will be given a wand (made from glow sticks, hot glue and paint).
Activities will begin at 6:30 p.m. There will be games, including Pin the Scar on Harry Potter, and a quiz to sort yourself into a Hogwarts house. Buttons for each of the different houses will be handed out, along with scratch-off tickets to win a five-minute tarot card reading at the Divination Station.
Refreshments will be served at Honeyduke’s, the candy store in the Harry Potter books. There will be faux-butter beer (made with root beer, cream soda and vanilla ice cream), among other things.
For younger attendees, there will be an extreme Harry Potter coloring station, pen and paper games and also a station to make yule ball bracelets with beads and pipe cleaners.
The dance floor will open at 7 p.m.
McInnis and Brumgard expect a strong turnout for the yule ball. The last time the library hosted a Harry Potter event was just before the last movie opened in theaters, and around 140 people participated.
They hope many more than that will come celebrate Harry Potter with them at the yule ball.
The week before the Harry Potter exhibit leaves, the library will host a trivia night Friday, Jan. 19, at 6 p.m. in the library meeting room.
This will be an after-hour event, so the library will be closed. Like the yule ball, it is suitable for all ages of Harry Potter fans, said McInnis.
People will need to register to participate. Registration will begin Jan. 9. Call the library at 636-390-1070.
There will be room enough for 64 people or eight tables of eight people each.
The library is open Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday is 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday noon to 4 p.m.
The library will be closed for the Christmas holiday from noon Dec. 22 through Christmas Day.
It also will be closed Jan. 1 and 15 for the New Year’s Day and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day holidays.