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Harvard Library Removes Human Skin from 19th Century Book Preserved for Nearly 100 Years

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Photo: Harvard Library Removes Human Skin from 19th Century Book Preserved for Nearly 100 Years. Source: Pixabay
Photo: Harvard Library Removes Human Skin from 19th Century Book Preserved for Nearly 100 Years. Source: Pixabay

Harvard University, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, has removed the human skin binding from the 19th century book Destinées de l'Ame (The Ordeal of the Soul), which has been stored in the Houghton Library since the 1930s, according to the Harvard Library website.

The decision was prompted by the recommendations of the Harvard University Steering Committee's report on human remains in the university's museum collections, published in autumn 2022. 

"After careful study, stakeholder engagement, and consideration, Harvard Library and the Harvard Museum's Collections Return Committee have concluded that the human remains used in the book's binding no longer belong in the Harvard Library's collections due to the ethical nature of the book's origins and subsequent history," Harvard University explained its decision.

The book Destinées de l'Ame is a meditation on the soul and life after death written by Arsène Oussay in the mid-1880s. He allegedly gave it to his friend, Dr Louis Bouland, a physician, who then bound the book with the skin of an unclaimed patient who died a natural death in his hospital. 

Destinées de l'Ame arrived at Harvard in 1934. The book contains a note written by Dr Boulanger stating that no ornamentation was embossed on the cover to "preserve its elegance".

"I have kept this piece of human skin taken from a woman's back," he wrote. "A book about the human soul deserved to have a human cover."

So the library is now also "conducting additional research into the anonymous patient's background and origins," the university said.

They added that they are looking for ways to ensure that "the human remains are treated with respect that seeks to restore the dignity of the woman whose skin was used." 

The Harvard Library has created a dedicated webpage for the book, which will be updated as the library's work progresses.

  

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