A Book Bound With Human Skin Spent 90 Years in Harvard’s Library. Now, the Binding Has Been Removed

In the late 19th century, a French physician took the skin, without consent, from a female psychiatric patient who had died

Words printed on a page
French author Arsène Houssaye wrote the book in 1879, then gave a copy to French physician Ludovic Bouland. Harvard Library

For the last 90 years, Harvard University has had a book bound with human skin in its library collection. But in late March, because of the book’s “ethically fraught nature,” university officials announced they had removed the binding and placed it in storage as they determine their next steps.

The book in question is Des Destinées de L’Âme, or Destinies of the Soul, which was written by French author Arsène Houssaye in 1879. Philanthropist and businessman John B. Stetson Jr.—a Harvard alum—lent it to the university in 1934, and after his death, his widow officially donated it in 1954.

Its original owner was Ludovic Bouland, a French physician who received the book directly from the author. Bouland bound the book with human skin taken, without consent, from the body of a woman who died at a French psychiatric hospital where he worked, according to the university.

He felt that “a book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering,” according to a handwritten note by Bouland found inside the volume. Bouland purposely did not decorate or stamp the binding to “preserve its elegance,” he writes.

“By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin,” according to the translated note, as reported by the Verge’s Jacob Kastrenakes in 2014. “I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman. It is interesting to see the different aspects that change this skin according to the method of preparation to which it is subjected.”

The note also described how Bouland prepared the skin for binding, a practice known as “anthropodermic bibliopegy,” according to the American Bookbinders Museum, that dates to at least the 16th century. But anthropodermic bibliopegy reached its peak popularity during the 1800s, when doctors used skin to bind books in their own collections or at the request of state officials, who wanted the skin of executed criminals to be used.

Harvard’s decision to remove the binding from its Houghton Library was prompted by a broader university review of human remains in its collections. But librarians have long known the book’s binding was made of human skin. This fact was confirmed by a 2014 analysis using peptide mass fingerprinting, which identifies the proteins in a skin sample so that researchers can match it to a mammal species.

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The disbound book is still available to researchers in person and digitally. Harvard Library

The librarians acknowledge they have “fallen short of an ethic of care” in their handling of the book, says Anne-Marie Eze, associate librarian of Harvard’s Houghton Library, in a Q&A published by the university. After the 2014 analysis, for example, Harvard announced the news in “two sensationalistic blog posts focused on the morbid nature of the object, rather than on the person whose skin was used without consent or its moral implications,” says Eze in the Q&A. Though the blog posts were later edited and have now been taken down, their original tone was “something we regret deeply,” she adds.

In addition, students hired to work at the library “decades ago” endured hazing when they were asked to fetch the book without being told it was bound in human skin, according to Eze.

Library leaders are now apologizing for their “past failures” that “further objectified and compromised the dignity of the human being at the center” of the discussion, says Tom Hyry, associate university librarian for archives and special collections, in the Q&A.

Harvard—and many other institutions, including the Smithsonian—have been reviewing their collections amid a growing outcry about their possession and treatment of human remains. Many museums, universities and federal agencies have the remains of Native American people in their collections, despite a 1990 federal law requiring their repatriation.

That law—the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act—was recently updated with new regulations and is meant to govern the return of Native American remains, funerary objects and sacred items.

In the fall of 2022, Harvard released a report detailing the human remains in its collections, as well as recommendations for their care and return. It described more than 20,000 human remains—including teeth, skeletons and locks of hair—from roughly 6,500 Native American individuals and 19 people who were possibly enslaved, write the New York Times’ Jennifer Schuessler and Julia Jacobs.

The document primarily focused on the human remains of enslaved people and Native Americans, but it also mentioned Des Destinées de L’Âme. That prompted the library to form its own task force to research the book’s origins and figure out what to do with it. Ultimately, the task force recommended removing the binding.

The binding is no longer available to any researcher, and all images of the skin have been taken off the library’s online platforms. The disbound book is still available, both in person and digitally.

The skin has been placed into temporary storage while librarians research the deceased woman whose skin was used for the binding, whose identity remains unknown. In consultation with French officials, they hope to give the remains a respectful final disposition.

“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,” says Hyry.

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

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