In 1997, British author J. K. Rowling introduced the world to Harry Potter and a literary phenomenon was born. 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, including alchemy, astrology, and natural philosophy. At the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry not only learns magic spells, charms, and potions, he is also taught about the natural world and its uses. This knowledge helps Harry and his friends survive innumerable adventures and ultimately defeat the villainous Lord Voldemort. For example, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry’s knowledge that the fangs from a basilisk can destroy the hidden fragments of Voldemort’s soul helps the young wizard ensure that, in their final battle, his opponent will lose his immortality.
Like Harry’s professors at Hogwarts, 16th-century Swiss naturalist and physician Konrad Gesner appreciated the knowledge gained by studying nature. Although Gesner is not mentioned in the Harry Potter series, many creatures the naturalist studied are. Gesner’s most famous work, Historiae Animalium, is considered one of the first examples of modern zoology. Unique to its time, the book included Greek and Biblical descriptions of animals, and also information Gesner had gained from dissections. Like many of his contemporaries, the naturalist believed that basilisks and dragons existed and he catalogued their medicinal uses alongside those of their reptile cousin, the snake. Of the basilisk, Gesner wrote that the “King of Serpents” could kill with its deadly stare, a trait re-imagined in Harry Potter.