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Harvard University Library Removes Human Skin From 19th-Century Book Binding

Harvard University has removed the human skin binding from a 19th-century book in its library.

The book is a copy of Des Destinées de l’âme, a meditation on the soul and life after death, first published by the French novelist Arsène Houssaye in 1879.

The author gave the book to his friend and doctor, Dr. Ludovic Bouland, in the early 1880s, who connected the book with the skin of an anonymous female patient who died, without his consent, in a hospital where he worked as a medical student in the 1860s.

A handwritten note from Dr Bouland inside the volume specifies that “a book on the human soul deserved to have a human envelope”.

The note also describes the process used to treat the skin so that it can bind the text.

It has been in Harvard’s collections since 1934, then transferred to the institution’s Houghton Library.

Harvard announced that the human remains were no longer in the library due to “the ethically fraught nature of the book’s origins and subsequent history.”

Picture:
Harvard’s Houghton Library has had this book in its collection for decades. Photo: iStock

The university said the skin would be placed in “respectful temporary storage” to “restore dignity to the woman” to whom it belonged.

In 2014, the library had the link tested using a scientific process called peptide mass fingerprinting, which confirmed the human origin.

Harvard apologized for “failing to uphold the ethic of care” in its handling of the book, saying the library initially published “sensationalist” blog posts focused on its “morbid nature” instead of the lack of consent of the patient or the morality surrounding him. the book.

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The Ivy League institution added that students who worked at Houghton Library years ago apparently underwent initiations in which they were asked to obtain the book without knowing it contained skin human.

The library continues its research into the book, Dr. Bouland and the anonymous patient.

Previously, the text was accessible to anyone who requested it. Now unbound copying is prohibited but can be accessed through the Harvard Library online catalog.

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