Harvard Library removes binding made of dead woman’s skin from 1800s book

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Harvard University has removed binding made of human skin used in a 19th-century book held at Houghton Library. In a statement released Wednesday, the university said that it decided to do so “due to the ethically fraught nature of the book’s origins and subsequent history.” The book Des Destinées de l’Ame (Destinies of the Soul) which was written by French novelist Arsène Houssaye, dates back to the 1800s.

Harvard University removes binding made of dead woman’s skin from a copy of Des Destinées de l’Ame, held at Houghton Library

Harvard removes human remains from 19-century book in its library

The copy of the book at Harvard originally belonged to Dr. Ludovic Bouland, a French physician and bibliophile. Bouland, who died in 1933, made the binding of the book with the skin of a dead female patient from a hospital he worked at. The university notes that the skin was taken without consent. While the book had been in Harvard’s collections since 1934, it wasn’t until 80 years later that it was confirmed to have been bound with human remains.

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In 2014, the university announced the truth about the book’s binding in a blog post, which received wide media coverage. Recalling the nature of the decade-old post, the university said in the statement, “Following the scientific analysis that confirmed the book to be bound in human skin, the library published posts on the Houghton blog that utilized a sensationalistic, morbid, and humorous tone that fueled similar international media coverage.”

Harvard Library’s statement also adds that the removal of human skin binding “follows a review by Houghton Library of the book’s stewardship, prompted by the recommendations of the Report of the Harvard University Steering Committee on Human Remains in University Museum Collections issued in fall 2022.” It also notes that the university’s appropriate authorities are trying to “determine a final respectful disposition of these human remains.”

The statement concludes with an apology from the university that reads, “Harvard Library acknowledges past failures in its stewardship of the book that further objectified and compromised the dignity of the human being whose remains were used for its binding. We apologize to those adversely affected by these actions.”

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