Harvard University removed human skin from book binding

(Cambridge) Harvard University said it had removed human skin from the binding of a 19th century booke century on the afterlife, which had been in its collections since the 1930s. The decision came after a study revealed ethical issues surrounding the book’s origin and history.


The book Destinies of the soul was written by Arsène Houssaye, a French man of letters, in the early 1880s. The printed text was given to a doctor, Ludovic Bouland, who “bound the book with skin that he took without consent from the body of a patient who died at a hospital where he worked,” Harvard University said in a recent statement. The book was kept at the university’s Houghton Library.

Mr. Bouland included a handwritten note inside the book. It said that “a book about the human soul deserves to have a human cover,” said assistant university librarian Thomas Hyry, in a question-and-answer session posted online Wednesday. The note also detailed the process of preparing the skin for binding.

A scientific analysis in 2014 confirmed that the binding was made of human skin, the university said.

In its statement, Harvard said the library found that its management practices did not meet its ethical standards in several respects.

PHOTO HOUGHTON LIBRARY, HARVARD U., PROVIDED BY AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The book Destinies of the soul

“Until relatively recently, the library made the book available to anyone who requested it, regardless of why they wanted to view it,” the university said. Library lore suggests that decades ago, students employed to look through the collections in Houghton’s stacks were initiated by asking them to retrieve the book without being told it contained human remains. »

When tests confirmed the book was bound in human skin, “the library published articles on Houghton’s blog that used a sensationalist, morbid and humorous tone that fueled similar international media coverage,” the library said. university in its press release.

The removed skin is now “safely stored at Harvard Library,” Anne-Marie Eze, associate librarian at Houghton Library, said during the question-and-answer session.

The library said it would conduct additional research into the book, Mr. Bouland and the anonymous patient. It is also working with French authorities to determine a “respectful final provision”.

Harvard said the skin’s removal was prompted by a library review following a Harvard University report on human remains in its museum collections, released in 2022.

“The Harvard Library and the Harvard Museum Collections Returns Committee concluded that the human remains used in the book’s binding no longer belonged in the Harvard Library’s collections, due to the ethically fraught nature of the book’s origins. book and its subsequent history,” the Harvard statement said.


reference: www.lapresse.ca

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