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Harvard to Remove Binding Made of Human Skin From 1800s Book

Des Destinées de l'Ame having binding made of human skin
A copy of ‘Des Destinées de l’Ame’ which has a binding made of human skin. Credit: Harvard University

Harvard University announced it will remove a binding made from human skin from a book dating back to the 19th century. This book, named Des destinées de l’âme (or Destinies of the Soul), has been at Harvard’s Houghton Library since the 1930s.

However, it gained global notice in 2014 after tests confirmed its unusual cover material. Harvard cited ethical concerns as the reason behind this decision, according to The Guardian.

On Wednesday, Harvard University announced its decision to remove the skin binding from the book after thorough study, discussions with stakeholders, and careful consideration.

Additionally, the university stated it will collaborate with authorities to determine a respectful final arrangement for these human remains.

Written by a French novelist in the mid-1880s

Arsène Houssaye, a French novelist, authored the book in the mid-1880s, focusing on the essence of the soul and the afterlife. Ludovic Bouland, a French physician, initially owned the volume and bound it with human skin.

Harvard revealed that Bouland acquired the skin without consent from a deceased female patient at the hospital where he practiced. This unsettling backstory, termed “ethically fraught” by Harvard, prompted the university to opt for the removal of the skin binding, as reported by The Guardian.

Tom Hyry, an archivist at Houghton Library, shared insights in a Q&A released by Harvard regarding the decision to remove the book from its library. He stated, “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.”

“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,” Hyry said. “We believe it’s time the remains be put to rest.”

Harvard initially treated it as good news for anthropodermic bibliopegy

In the past, Harvard students working in the library were sometimes subjected to a hazing ritual. They were asked to fetch the book without knowing it was covered in human remains.

Back in 2014, when the strange binding of the book was confirmed, Harvard treated it with a more light-hearted tone. The university referred to the discovery as good news for fans of anthropodermic bibliopegy, bibliomaniacs, and cannibals alike.

Anthropodermic bibliopegy is the practice of binding books in human skin, which gained popularity in the 19th century but has been documented since at least the 1500s.

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