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Report from Melbourne Lecture

Posted by: Melissa
March 23, 2004, 07:24 AM

Shaun Hatley attended the University of Melbourne's Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences Dean's Lecture entitled "'Harry Potter': Implications for Child and Adolescent Health on March 22, and filed a report with us at TLC. Professor Glenn Bowes, the Stevenson Professor and Head of the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Melbourne, spoke about whether "the triumph of good over evil really require[s] the magic of wizards? Can change be achieved by mere Muggles committed to improving the health outcomes of children and adolescents?"
This evening I attended the University of Melbourne's Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences Dean's Lecture entitled "'Harry Potter': Implications for Child and Adolescent Health, delivered by Professor Glenn Bowes, the Stevenson Professor and Head of the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Melbourne.
The Dean's Lecture series is designed to bring current research and areas of interest in the field of medicine, dentistry and health to the attention of anyone who is interested. Topics vary widely, and are often, as tonight's topic was, rather unusual in some way or other.

I think to begin I will start by quoting the material placed around the university (I'm a student there) to encourage people to attend this lecture. It gives a clear idea of where it was meant to be coming from.

Does the triumph of good over evil really require the magic of wizards? Can change be achieved by mere muggles committed to improving the health outcomes of children and adolescents?

The health and wellbeing of children and young people is influenced by family, peers, school and community. J K Rowling's 'Harry Potter' novels explore how the balance of risk and protective factors impact on the lives of children. Professor Bowes looks at the concept of the school as a social centre, exemplified in the form of Hogwarts and its principal, Professor Dumbledore. He will discuss the challenge of implementing effective programs to improve the health and wellbeing of children and young people across schools and communities.

It is probably worth mentioning that this lecture has attracted considerable public comment - being mentioned in Australian newspapers today, and Professor Bowes apparently spent much of today being interviewed about it on various radio stations.

The lecture lasted an hour and I took a lot of notes - unfortunately they turned off most of the lights so I fear I have trouble deciphering what I wrote only a few hours ago. But I think Harry Potter fans may be interested in what was said, so I will, as best I can recall from my memory and my notebook lay out the material of interest.

A great deal of the lecture, though interesting in terms of its content is unlikely to be of particular interest to the people reading this report. So I will only mention as much detail of those sections as I feel is needed to explain the points the Professor Bowes was making.

His lecture more or less had two parts - firstly, looking at what research tells us (research that he, personally, has been involved in, and other people's research as well) about the health - particularly the mental health - of children and adolescents, and secondly looking at how this research can be presented to others in ways that will allow it to actually serve a useful purpose. The vast majority of the lecture was in this vain, about these materials - Harry Potter references were not particularly dominant, but were used to hook things together and to illustrate some points.

Professor Bowes began by asking the question 'How has the world changed for children and adolescents changed over the last decade'.

He said that his lecture he intended to look at three areas of massive change in children's live - health measures, health policy, and Harry Potter.

He gave a brief rundown of the titles and publication dates of the books, and praised J.K. Rowling for writing so much, so successfully, in such a relatively short time.

He told us about going out on the release day of 'Order of the Phoenix' last year with his son, Mathew (one of the two experts on Harry Potter he thanked in his introduction) to purchase the book. They had breakfast together (the book went on sale at 9am, here in Melbourne - we didn't have to get up at midnight) and then stood in line at the bookshop. When they got home, they had to head off to some other activity, so left the book waiting to be read when they returned. While they were gone, the family dog ate the book before anyone could read it.

Professor Bowes had the highest of praise for Stephen Fry's spoken word renditions of the books, and said that his family often listen to them while driving.

He gave some brief figures on the success of the books (170,000,000 copies sold in 55 languages, etc) and gave his views on some of the reasons why the books have been so successful. These were that they were 'content rich' - they concerned the triumph of good over evil, Harry's resilience in the face of all that he has faced, they deal with the functions of family - and most important of all to his own work - school as a core social centre.

He also mentioned that the books have been very successfully 'taken to scale' - in other words marketed. Promoted so many people will encounter them.

He mentioned some of the characteristics of Harry as a character - the ones of interest to the type of work Professor Bowes and his colleagues do.

Harry is an orphan - he is forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs. He is subjected to abuse and neglect by the only family he has. He is not afforded a place in that family - and he receives only the minimum of care.

DESPITE THIS - Harry becomes an agent of change. He becomes a powerful person, able to influence the world. Much of this comes from within - but much of it comes from without.

We're back to the school as a core social centre. While Harry's living blood relations may neglect him, Harry really does have two other families. He has the family within his school - his friends, and his teachers, etc. And he has the Weasley family - who become virtually an adoptive family for him. Professor Bowes mentioned that it is, in his experience, not an uncommon phenomena for the parents of the 'best friend' of a neglected child to take on something of a parental role for that child.

Professor Bowes then turned to what he described as lessons to be learned by academics from the marketing of Harry Potter. He showed Powerpoint slides with the covers of books he considers critical to adolescent health in Australia - in particular two reports published in the mid 1990s.

He described their current fate. Remnant copies sit on dusty shelves, there are no movies, there are no Stephen Fry adaptations.

The books are content rich - but have not been taken to scale. Rich content is necessary but, by itself, is not enough to ensure success. He talked about the need for academics to 'present' their work - while it will not attract the attention that Harry Potter does, it can't accomplish much unless it is seen.

He then moved onto talking more specifically about the mental and emotional health of adolescents. He showed us an image of Harry, Ron, and Hermione - what he described as Harry's core friendship group, something very important to many adolescents health and safety.

He gave us a lot of figures on health measures for Australian youth - which I won't go into here, but which illustrated his point quite well - that the situation is serious enough to justify major work to deal with these problems.

He talked about his own work with the Gatehouse Project - I won't go into detail describing this project, it's website is available at
But he mentioned in their models, one of the most important things in promoting adolescent mental health is for these kids to develop a sense of belonging - of connectedness - a very core theme in the Harry Potter books.

Transformational change - a paradigm shift, a re-invention - is needed to address these issue, and he used a scene from the Philosopher's Stone as a metaphor for this transformational change.

It is the scene on Kings Cross station - Harry has been left at the station by his 'family' - by the Dursley's. Just abandoned there without help. To get to Hogwarts, Harry must find the platform - but he is confronted with blank walls.
Then the Weasley's arrive - the people who will become his adoptive family - and when he asks for help, Mrs Weasley does what comes naturally to her as a caring adult who sees a child with a problem. She helps him solve. She gives him guidance as to what he needs to do. But to do it, he needs to have some courage, and trust - to do something that makes very little sense and run through a wall.

He does so. He finds the train. It's his pathway to his destiny.

In ending the lecture, Professor Bowes went back to the question I mentioned earlier.

"Does the triumph of good over evil really require the magic of wizards? Can change be achieved by mere muggles committed to improving the health outcomes of children and adolescents?"

To answer this question, he turns to what I think is probably one of the best known quotes in Chamber of Secrets.

It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."

Professor Bowes believes that academics - and others seeking to improving the health outcomes of young people - need to make the choices to present their evidence, and to make people understand what needs to be done.

And to get people to listen - you market the ideas in a way that attracts public attention.

I suppose one way you can do that is to give a public lecture that relates the issue you want to discuss to one of the most dominant media entities in the world today.

-Shaun Hatley for TLC

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