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Introduction     Unit 1     Unit 2     Unit 3

Things  Most  Strange

and  Wondrous

Author     Overview     Intended Audience     Suggested Use     Learning Outcomes


Mark A. Waddell, Ph.D., is a historian of early modern science and medicine whose research focuses primarily on the intersections between science, religion, and art in the Jesuit order. He received his doctorate from the Program in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology at the Johns Hopkins University in 2005, and now teaches in the Lyman Briggs College of Science at Michigan State University. He has published works on the Flemish physician Jan Baptista van Helmont (1580-1644) and the Jesuit naturalist Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), and is now writing a book that explores the role of the Jesuit order in 17th-century debates about certainty, vision, and skepticism.

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“Things Most Strange and Wondrous”: The Hidden roots of Modern Science and Medicine is a module designed to introduce undergraduate and graduate students to important themes in the development of modern science and medicine. It has been inspired by the National Library of Medicine's exhibition, Harry Potter's World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine, which explores the history of science and medicine through the lens of the Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling. Like the exhibition, this module focuses more specifically on the various magical and esoteric traditions that shaped how past thinkers conceived of the study of nature in the Renaissance and early modern periods.

The development of modern science and medicine in the Renaissance and beyond was far from straightforward. Following the advent of mechanical printing, the recovery and study of classical texts, and the voyages of discovery to the New World, thinkers across Europe found themselves all but overwhelmed by new information and ideas. Their efforts to adapt and synthesize this influx of information was a slow and, in some cases, painstaking process; what emerged, ultimately, were the disciplines and practices that we recognize today. Aspects of this history will be explored throughout this module.

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Intended Audience

The module has been prepared primarily for postsecondary instructors with a background in Renaissance and early modern intellectual and cultural history (spanning roughly 1450-1700 C.E.). Familiarity with the Harry Potter novels is neither assumed nor required, though it would be an advantage.

Ideally, students should have some background in basic European history. For them as well, familiarity with the Harry Potter novels is neither assumed nor required.

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Suggested Use

This module has been designed as three separate units that can be used individually or in tandem, exploring different facets of the magical and esoteric traditions that contributed to the development of modern science and medicine. Each unit in turn has been divided into sub-units that aid in focusing the material for effective teaching. It is expected that each of the three main units contains enough material for roughly two to three weeks of class time; altogether, then, the entire module has been designed to accommodate roughly six to nine weeks. Because themes from each unit overlap and interlock with those in the other units, instructors can easily expand any given unit with material from the others. Instructors are invited to excerpt from or expand upon the listed sources as needed.

Each unit contains the following:

  • Background information for the unit, including links between the historical content and any topics from the Harry Potter novels that might be relevant.
  • Key concepts specific to each unit
  • Sub-units, each of which consists of:
    - Primary and secondary sources
    - Visual resources
    - Discussion questions
    - Suggested student exercises

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Learning Outcomes

At the conclusion of a unit or the entire module, students should be expected to:

  • demonstrate a basic understanding of Renaissance and early modern culture
  • appreciate the influence of factors such as religion, technologies, and geography on the development of ideas, and specifically on the development of modern science and medicine
  • analyze and understand both historical ideas and contemporary scholarship about those ideas
  • demonstrate an ability to read and interpret primary source materials
  • relate historical concepts and beliefs to themes in modern science and medicine

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