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Education: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine in Harry Potter’s World

“Things Most Strange and Wondrous”: The Hidden Roots of Modern Science and Medicine


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 2006, and has taught in the Lyman Briggs College of Science at Michigan State University. He has published titles on the Flemish physician Johannes Baptista van Helmont (1580–1644) and the Jesuit naturalist Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), in addition to his book Jesuit Science and the End of Nature’s Secrets (2015) which explores the roles of Niccolò€ Cabeo, Athanasius Kircher, and Gaspar Schott in 17th-century debates about certainty, vision, and skepticism. Dr. Waddell’s research also explores 17th-century magical medicine, including the weapon salve, a medical remedy that was thought to heal wounds when applied to the weapon that caused it, rather than the wound itself.

Suggested Use

“Things Most Strange and Wondrous”: The Hidden Roots of Modern Science and Medicine module offers class templates for postsecondary instructors with a background in Renaissance and early modern intellectual and cultural history (spanning roughly 1450–1700 C.E.). Ideally, students should have some background in basic European history. For both students and instructors, familiarity with the Harry Potter novels is neither assumed nor required, though it would be an advantage.

This module consists of three classes 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 of the classes contains enough material for roughly two to three weeks and includes an introduction, class resources, and discussion questions. Because themes from each class overlap and interlock with those in the others, instructors can easily expand any given unit with material from the others.


At the conclusion of a class 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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