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Harvard removes human skin binding from library book

Library had already restricted access to it

A book in Harvard University’s library no longer is bound with the skin of a human being.

Houghton Library and university officials made the decision recently as part of its campaign to repatriate human remains, following a 2022 report.

The university announced:

Harvard Library has removed human skin from the binding of a copy of Arsène Houssaye’s book Des destinées de l’âme (1880s), held at Houghton Library. The volume’s first owner, French physician and bibliophile Dr. Ludovic Bouland (1839–1933), bound the book with skin he took without consent from the body of a deceased female patient in a hospital where he worked. The book has been in the collections of Harvard Library since 1934, initially placed on deposit by John B. Stetson, Jr. (1884–1952), an American diplomat, businessman, and Harvard alumnus (AB 1906), and later through donation by his widow Ruby F. Stetson to Houghton Library in 1954.

The library “failed to meet the level of ethical standards to which it subscribes.”

Reportedly, student employees “were hazed by being asked to retrieve the book without being told it included human remains.”

The library also apologized for a 2014 blog post “that utilized a sensationalistic, morbid, and humorous tone that fueled similar international media coverage.”

A note left in the book indicated the binding included human skin. However, the library did not confirm this until testing it in 2014.

“This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance,” a note from Bouland, the original owner, reportedly said. “By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman.”

The book is “permanently unavailable to library users,” according to another library page.

“We started placing restrictions on access in 2015 and instituted a full moratorium on new research access in February 2023,” a librarian said, as reported by The Harvard Crimson.

“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,” the library stated. “We apologize to those adversely affected by these actions.”

The university now plans to work with French authorities to track down the identity of the woman whose skin was on the book.

MORE: Professors get $1 million to apply ‘critical race studies’ to the classics

IMAGE: Édition Mon Autre Librairie

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Matt has previously worked at Students for Life of America, Students for Life Action and Turning Point USA. While in college, he wrote for The College Fix as well as his college newspaper, The Loyola Phoenix. He holds a B.A. from Loyola University-Chicago and an M.A. from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He lives in northwest Indiana with his family.