Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived, Comes From a Long Line of Pharmacists
In the Harry Potter series, author JK Rowling shows us that medicine is magic.
A swish of the wrist and a flick of the wand can usually heal any ailment in the wizarding world of Harry Potter. If not, a potion can do just as much. In the Harry Potter series, author JK Rowling shows us that medicine is magic.
Many of the people, potions, and naming conventions for spells in the Harry Potter series are derived from (and used in) real-world pharmacological conditions and treatments. Even wizards and witches have name brand pharmaceuticals lining their cupboard shelves.
Wizards in Pharmacy
Unknown to many, Harry Potter comes from a long line of wizards in pharmacy, although a rather unique form of it.1
When Harry goes to Gringotts’s bank for the first time, he enters his bank vault to find a small fortune.1 JK Rowling credits Harry’s wealth to his 12th century ancestor, Linfred of Stinchocombe, the pharmaceutical tycoon that developed Skele-gro and Pepperup Potion.1 Skele-gro is an ingestible potion that can mend or regrow a broken bone.
Harry’s grandfather later increased the Potter fortune with a pharmaceutical hair growth potion.1 With the wealth produced from the creation of this potion, we learn even wizards lose their hair.
Plants, Potions, and Modern Pharmaceuticals
Throughout the series, plants appear to be common derivatives of magical potions and remedies. Several plants and plant-based potions are based on real world plants that do have or may have, according to traditional Western medicine, medicinal properties of their own.
For example, the mandrake was an important anthropomorphic plant during book 2 of the Harry Potter series. Its roots resembled infant humans, and when pulled from the ground, their cries of displeasure could kill the gardener. But when the mandrake matured, it became the star component of a potion to help ‘petrified’ victims who were frozen in a coma.
Rowling based the mandrake on an actual plant native to Greece and Northern Italy.2 It was believed to have been used as a hallucinogenic and painkiller during ancient times.2 Current pharmaceutical drugs like etoposide (Toposar; SP Pharmaceuticals LLC) use an alkaloid derived from the mandrake plant called podophyllotoxin, which is also the active ingredient in podofilox gel (Condylox; Elsevier Inc).3 Etoposide has been a successful treatment option for small cell lung cancer and testicular cancer, along with treating other types of lymphomas and acute leukemias.3
But plants in the wizarding world are not only used for medicinal purposes. For example, if a wizard were bored in their History of Magic (naturally) or Charms courses, by sprinkling sneezing powder onto a friend’s robe, their friend would suddenly erupt into a sneezing fit, supplying a reprieve from the boredom inflicted upon the young wizards by a drawling professor.
This sneezing powder is also based on a real plant: the Virginia sneezeweed.4 Native to Virginia and parts of the Midwest, the flower head of Helenium autumnale can treat colds and headaches in a powdered form.3
Brewing the flowerhead into a tea can also reportedly treat intestinal worms, with a leaf infusion also being used as a laxative.5 Most significant are its possible cancer fighting properties.6
In particular, the helenalin compound of the sneezeweed can potentially be useful for tumor reduction.5 During prior research, scientists studied helenalin as a possible treatment for prostate cancer.6 Based on study results, they discovered that helenalin triggered the reactive oxygen species inhibitor, lessening the apoptosis rate of healthy cells and repressing the viability of concentrated prostate cancer cells.6
However, the helenalin plant can also be toxic if prepared in certain ways.5 With the potential risks, scientists note that more research is needed to see if it provides viable therapeutic activity for prostate cancer.6
Spells and Modern Medicine
Wizards cast healing spells as well, with even the names of certain spells conjuring names common to us in modern medicine. For instance, Remus Lupin casts a Ferula spell on Ron Weasley to splint his injured leg in the third book.2 Ferula is Latin for ‘rod’ and refers to the fennel plant.2 And in ancient Rome, fennel was used to make splints for injuries.2 Thus the spell’s name emphasizes it’s physical purpose, but we can also see the correlation to real ancient medicinal practices.6
In the 21st century, fennel is a widely used supplement that supports the digestive system. It is also commonly found in natural pharmaceuticals to alleviate upper respiratory tract infections, cholera, coughs, and bronchitis.7
The Vulnera Sanentur spell is an excellent example of the power of a name. Vulnera, which isLatin for ‘wound,’and Sanentur, which is Latin for ‘heal’—this spell is used in the wizarding world tocounter dark magic curses.2,5 It is not explicit, but the naming convention of these spells may be alluding to naming conventions of today’s pharmaceutical products. Though Rowling could also be alluding to the magical power inherent in healing,2 a magic which exists in our world in the everyday medicine lining the walls of our pharmacies.
- Shamsian J. 25 things you didn’t know about J.K. Rowlings ‘Harry Potter’ universe. Business Insider. Updated Nov 4, 2018. Accessed Aug 4, 2022.insider.com/harry-potter-jk-rowling-movie-secrets-facts-2017-7
- Davies M. Magic or Medicine: A Closer Look at J.K. Rowling’s Inspiration. Accessed Aug 5, 2022. https://journal.lib.uoguelph.ca/index.php/classics/article/view/6705/6531.
- Mandrake (Plant). Science Direct website. Accessed on Aug 5, 2022. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/pharmacology-toxicology-and-pharmaceutical-science/mandrake-plant
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.The Real Magical Plants of Harry Potter. USFWS website. July 31, 2017. Accessed on Aug 5, 2022. https://usfws.medium.com/the-real-magical-plants-in-harry-potter-e937ea3b560e
- Sneezeweed. Natural medicinal herbs. Accessed Aug 4, 2022. http://www.naturalmedicinalherbs.net/herbs/h/helenium-autumnale=sneezeweed.php
- Yang M, Zhang W, Yu X, et al. Helenalin Facilitates Reactive Oxygen Species-Mediated Apoptosis and Cell Cycle Arrest by Targeting Thioredoxin Reductase-1 in Human Prostate Cancer Cells. National Library of Medicine. Jun 14, 2021. Accessed Aug 5, 2022. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8212699/#:~:text=PMID%3A%2034125740-,Helenalin%20Facilitates%20Reactive%20Oxygen%20Species%2DMediated%20Apoptosis%20and%20Cell%20Cycle,in%20Human%20Prostate%20Cancer%20Cells
- Fennel. Rx list website. Accessed on Aug 4, 2022. rxlist.com/fennel/supplements.htm