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Harvard University library removes human skin from 19th century book binding | US News

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Harvard University has removed human skin binding from a 19th century book housed 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 French novelist Arsène Houssaye in 1879.

The author handed the book to his friend and physician Dr Ludovic Bouland in the early 1880s, who bound the book with the skin of an anonymous dead female patient, without her consent, in a hospital he worked as a medical student in the 1860s.

A handwritten note by Dr Bouland inside the volume states that “a book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering”.

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

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

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

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA - May 26, 2021: The Houghton LIbrary building is in Harvard University's Harvard Yard. Opened in 1942, it is part of the Harvard College Library and is a repository for rare books and manuscripts.
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Harvard’s Houghton Library has had the book in its collection for decades. Pic: iStock

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

In 2014, the library had the binding tested using a scientific process known as peptide mass fingerprinting, which confirmed the human origin.

Harvard apologised for “falling short of an ethic of care” in its stewardship of the book, saying the library had first published “sensationalist” blog posts centring on its “morbid nature” instead of the lack of consent by the patient or the morality surrounding the book.

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The Ivy League institution added students who worked in the Houghton Library years ago apparently underwent initiations where they were asked to get the book without knowing it included human skin.

The library is conducting further research into the book, Dr Bouland and the anonymous patient.

Previously, the text was available to anyone who requested it. Now, the disbound copy is off limits but can be consulted through Harvard’s online library catalogue.

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