Malaria and Magical Thinking

My whole life I’ve been a voracious reader, and as a child there were no genre I devoured more than fantasy. I remember cataloging all the spells in the Harry Potter books, and (this is a little embarrassing) when I was alone, sometimes I would try them out, hoping I too might have the magic.

As you can read here, I embarked on a career in science in part because I had an epiphany that the amazing things scientists do can themselves seem pretty magical. Chemistry, in which we regularly mix substances to form a substance with wholly distinct physical properties, especially enchanted me. These days I wield chemistry to make medicines, and what is more magical than curing disease?

Well, that brings me to the article (Emerging Infectious Diseases) I wanted to share today, which one of my professors shared in his lecture about malaria (Wikipedia) yesterday.

This article references the Liber Medicinalis, a third century Roman book that today survives only in fragments. Some of these fragments constitute the first documentation of malaria, the first documentation of its ‘treatment’, and… the first documentation of the use of the most famous spell of all (and probably the only one you can think of, if you didn’t obsessively catalog Harry Potter as a child as I did).


Yes, that’s right. This phrase first appears in print as a prescribed ‘remedy’ for malaria. As the article describes, historians think that patients were supposed to write this word “several times on a piece of paper” and then “repeat the words in the lines below but take away letters from the complete word and let the letters fall away one at a time in each succeeding line.” Like this:

People actually believed that as the letters disappeared, the disease would disappear also.

It’s fun to revel in the “magic” of science while I’m at my bench, but I don’t actually confuse science with magic. Yet historically, the distinction between the two has not always been clear. I would love to explore this distinction more in a future post – for instance, how exactly would you define that difference?but for now, I just thought this article was a fascinating illustration of the way the practice of science has often been tangled up with the practice of “magic” – so much so that the first written usage of a word that is now practically synonymous with “magic” was as a prescription for a disease that we are still struggling to treat today (CDC). Every year, malaria kills nearly half a million people worldwide – mostly children younger than 5 years old (PubMed).

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