Harvard will remove binding made of human skin from 1800s book | Harvard University

Harvard will remove binding made of human skin from 1800s book | Harvard University

Harvard University has said it will be removing the binding made of human skin from a 19th-century book held in its library because of the “ethically fraught nature” of how the unusual binding took place.

The book, called Des Destinées de l’Ame (or Destinies of the Soul), has been held at the university’s Houghton Library since the 1930s but drew international attention in 2014 when tests confirmed that it was bound in human skin.

On Wednesday, however, the university said that after “careful study, stakeholder engagement, and consideration” it would remove the skin binding and will work with authorities to “determine a final respectful disposition of these human remains”.

The book was written by Arsène Houssaye, a French novelist, in the mid-1880s as a meditation on the nature of having a soul, and life after death. The volume’s first owner, the French physician Ludovic Bouland, then bound the book with human skin. Harvard said that Bouland took the skin from a deceased female patient in a hospital where he worked, without consent.

This troubling history, which Harvard called “ethically fraught”, led the university to decide to remove the skin binding.

“As you can imagine, this has been an unusual circumstance for us in the library and we have learned a great deal as we arrived at our decision,” said Tom Hyry, an archivist at Houghton Library, in a Q&A issued by Harvard announcing its decision to remove the book from its library.

The core problem with the volume’s creation was a doctor who didn’t see a whole person in front of him and carried out an odious act of removing a piece of skin from a deceased patient, almost certainly without consent, and used it in a book binding that has been handled by many for more than a century. We believe it’s time the remains be put to rest.”

In the past, Harvard students employed to page collections in the library were subject to a hazing ritual where they were asked to retrieve the book without being told it was covered in human remains.

The confirmation of the book’s strange binding in 2014 was, at the time, also treated in a more light-hearted manner by Harvard. The university called the discovery “good news for fans of anthropodermic bibliopegy, bibliomaniacs and cannibals alike”. Anthropodermic bibliopegy is the practice of binding books in human skin, something which enjoyed a spate of popularity in the 19th century, but which has occurred since at least the 1500s.

Harvard said that it now regrets the “sensationalistic, morbid, and humorous tone” in which the discovery was announced.

“We apologize on behalf of Harvard Library for past failures in our stewardship of the book that further objectified and compromised the dignity of the human being at the center,” said Hyry.

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