Happily ever after: The lessons of medicine and fairy tales

An exhibit at UAB delves deep into an unlikely partner in the study of medicine — fairy tales.

Two hundred years after the Brothers Grimm published their first book of fairy tales, a special exhibit in the Alabama Museum of the Health Sciences explores the parallels between the magic in fairy tales and ancient medicine. While fairy tales are imaginative flights of fancy, they also helped people gain a better understanding of serious issues such as illness, injury and even death.

The exhibit in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s museum, titled “The Charm was Broken, Illness and Injury in the fairy tales of Mary de Morgan,” is based on the works of the English author who, writing in the late Victorian period, penned three volumes of fairy tales. Illness featured prominently in many of her stories. She, and many in her family, suffered from consumption and she ultimately died of the disease. The exhibit was created by Valerie Gribben, a UAB medical student and fan of the fairy tale genre.

“As a child, I loved the idea of the evil troll and the wicked queen battling against the beautiful princess and the handsome prince,” said Gribben. “As I grew up I started to see the complexities and subtleties in fairy tales, and by the time I came to medical school I started to see the overlap between fairy tales and medicine.”

The exhibit features the work of de Morgan and examples of centuries-old medicine, magic and myth, drawing on the venerable medical texts housed in UAB’s Reynolds Historical Library. Because once upon a time, when the world’s medical sophistication was somewhat less than today, magic and medicine were more closely intertwined.

One panel in the exhibit, drawn from a Reynolds Library text, promotes unicorn horn as a powerful cure-all of ailments from stomach disorders to poison. Another points out that rapunzel, an English herb whose name was appropriated by a long-haired fairy tale heroine, was thought to be good for pregnant women.

Mike Flannery, associate director for historical collections at UAB, says that at the time that many fairy tales originated, disease was poorly understood and never far away.

“Disease was an ever-present, sort of ominous cloud that hung over every family,” says Flannery. “These fairy tales are stories to convey the reality of life to children and in some ways to assuage the fears of parents regarding diseases that then were death sentences but today are largely treatable.”

Flannery says fairy tales gave people a target for their fears. Witches, goblins and trolls became the manifestation of diseases that had no cure, such as consumption. We know it today as tuberculosis, but 200 years ago, it was the cancer of the day.

“When you live with the uncertainty of life and death, when you live in a world where 30 percent of children born won’t survive one year, you have to come to grips with that reality in some meaningful way,” he said. “This is a literary genre that helped them do that.”

Gribben says that while training to be a physician, she’s met many characters that resemble prototypical fairy tale figures in clinic exam rooms and hospital corridors. She’s seen the Abandoned Prince, the Evil Stepmother and the Lecherous King.

“Fairy tales and medicine both deal with the things that go bump in the night,” said Gribben. “It’s the unknown, the dark forest, the shadowy world. When you go to a hospital you enter the realm of the sick — the ill, and it’s a transition from the outside world. I think medicine is about reaching deeper and having compassion for everyone around you even if they don’t look like you or sound like you. I think fairy tales and medicine both deal with the human spirit and the human condition. ”

The exhibit is on display through May 31, 2012, in the museum on the third floor of the Lister Hill Library, 1700 University Blvd. Gribben, who has written her own three-volume set of fairy tales, will present a gallery talk at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 15.

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