Harvard will take off a book from the 1800s that was bound with human skin.
Harvard will take off a book from the 1800s that was bound with human skin.

The university says the first person who owned a book by a French author took the skin from a dead female patient without permission.

Harvard will get rid of an 1800s book's binding made of human skin.
Harvard will get rid of an 1800s book’s binding made of human skin.

Harvard University will take off the human skin cover from a book from the 1800s that is in its library because the way it was made is “ethically fraught.”

The book, Des Destinées de l’Ame (or Destinies of the Soul), has been in the university’s Houghton Library since the 1930s. In 2014, tests proved that it was wrapped in human skin, which made headlines around the world.

But on Wednesday, the university said that it would take off the skin binding after “careful study, stakeholder engagement, and consideration.” They will also work with the authorities to “determine a final respectful disposition of these human remains.”

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The French author Arsène Houssaye wrote the book in the middle of the 1880s as a way to think about what it means to have a soul and what happens after death. The first person to own the book was the French doctor Ludovic Bouland, who bound it with human skin. Massachusetts General Hospital said that Bouland took the skin from a dead female patient at the hospital where he worked without her permission.

Harvard said the past was “ethically fraught,” which is why they decided to get rid of the skin binding.

Harvard announced its decision to remove the book from its library in a Q&A. In it, Tom Hyry, an archivist at Houghton Library, said, “As you can imagine, this has been an unusual situation for us in the library and we have learned a great deal as we came to our decision.”

“The main problem with how the book was put together was that there was a doctor who didn’t see the whole person in front of him. He took a piece of skin from a dead patient, probably without permission, and used it in a way that many people have done for more than a hundred years.” We think it’s time for the body to be buried.

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It used to be that Harvard students who worked as pagers in the library had to go through a hazing rite where they had to get the book without being told that it was covered in dead bodies.

Back in 2014, when Harvard confirmed that the book had a strange cover, they did so in a more lighthearted way. The university said that the finding was “good news for anthropodermic bibliophily fans, book lovers, and cannibals alike.” The technique of binding books in human skin, known as anthropodermic bibliopegy, became very popular in the 1800s but has been around since at least the 1500s.

Harvard now feels bad about the “sensationalistic, morbid, and humorous tone” in which the finding was made public.

“On behalf of the Harvard Library, we apologize for past mistakes in how we handled the book that made it seem more like an object and hurt the dignity of the person at its center,” Hyry said.

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