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Harvard to Remove Book Binding Made of Human Skin Dating Back to the 1800s

Harvard University will remove a 19th-century book binding made of human skin due to ethical concerns, acknowledging its troubling history.

Harvard University has announced its decision to remove a 19th-century book, Des Destinées de l’Ame (Destinies of the Soul), from its library due to the unsettling nature of its binding, which is made from human skin.

The book has been housed at Harvard’s Houghton Library since the 1930s, but it gained widespread attention in 2014 when tests confirmed the unusual binding material. The decision to remove the skin binding follows the university’s careful consideration, stakeholder engagement, and ethical deliberation.

Written by French novelist Arsène Houssaye in the mid-1880s, the book explores themes of the soul and life after death. However, its first owner, French physician Ludovic Bouland, obtained the skin from a deceased female patient without consent, which Harvard described as an “ethically fraught” act.

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Tom Hyry, an archivist at Houghton Library, explained the university’s decision, stating, “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 a cruel 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. We believe it’s time the remains be put to rest.”

Previously, the book was part of a hazing ritual for Harvard students tasked with retrieving it without being informed of its macabre covering. The university also acknowledged its regret for previously treating the discovery in a light-hearted manner, recognizing the insensitive tone used at the time.

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