Unveiling History: Harvard University Library Removes 19th Century Book Binding Made of Human Skin

Unveiling History: Harvard University Removes Human Skin Binding from 19th Century Book

Harvard University has taken a significant step by removing a disturbing piece of history from its library—a 19th-century book bound in human skin. The book in question is a copy of "Des Destinées de l'âme," a contemplation on the soul and the afterlife penned by French novelist Arsène Houssaye in 1879.

The macabre binding of the book dates back to the early 1880s when the author entrusted it to his friend and physician, Dr. Ludovic Bouland. Utilizing the skin of an anonymous deceased female patient, taken without consent from a hospital where Bouland once worked as a medical student in the 1860s, Bouland bound the book, accompanied by a handwritten note justifying the use of human skin as a fitting covering for a book about the human soul.

The volume found its way into Harvard's collections in 1934 and was later housed in the university's Houghton Library. However, in light of the book's ethically contentious origins and subsequent history, Harvard University has made the decision to remove the human remains from its library.

Acknowledging the lack of consent from the deceased patient and the moral questions surrounding the book, Harvard University has pledged to place the human skin into respectful temporary storage, aiming to restore dignity to the woman to whom it belonged.

In a demonstration of accountability, Harvard University issued an apology for its oversight, admitting to a failure to uphold an ethic of care in stewarding the book. The university also revealed disturbing practices of past initiations, where students working in the Houghton Library were unwittingly asked to retrieve the book.

Moving forward, the library is committed to further research into the book, Dr. Bouland, and the anonymous patient. While the disbound copy is now restricted from public access, it remains available for consultation through Harvard's online library catalogue, ensuring continued scholarly engagement while upholding ethical standards.

In conclusion, Harvard University's decision to remove the 19th-century book binding made of human skin marks a significant moment in reckoning with the ethical complexities of its historical collections. By acknowledging the lack of consent from the deceased patient and apologizing for past oversights, Harvard demonstrates a commitment to upholding ethical standards and treating human remains with dignity and respect. Moving forward, the university's continued research into the book, its origins, and the individuals involved will contribute to a deeper understanding of this troubling chapter in its history. As Harvard ensures that the disbound copy remains accessible for scholarly inquiry while respecting ethical considerations, it sets a precedent for responsible stewardship of cultural artifacts in academic settings.