Startling Book Bound With Human Skin Removed From Harvard Library

Harvard’s library addressed the controversy of Des destinées de l’ame, a book bound with human skin. Read on for details.

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Harvard’s Houghton Library became mixed up in controversy after a 2022 report on human remains in university museum collections revealed one of its books, Des destinées de l’ame, known as On the Destiny of the Soul in English, was mentioned for using human skin as the binding. This older book became a subject of worry amongst students and researchers as they questioned the ethics of keeping such a book within the library.

How did Harvard get a book bound with human skin?

While the controversy surrounding the book may seem new, Des destinées de l’ame has been a part of Harvard’s library for ages. It was gifted to the university back in 1934, including a memo detailing that a French physician, Ludovic Bouland, owned the book previously and bound it with skin from a dead patient. The book was originally written by Arsène Houssaye, but Bouland bought the book and changed the binding.

Interior of library with stained windows and table.
IMAGE VIA CANVA

Up through 2014, all students could check out the book from the library. In 2015, the library began restricting access. Harvard was open about the fact that the book was bound with human skin. The book was one of a few different items in Harvard’s collection that contained human remains, and the ethical complications of such items make other researchers concerned about the institution’s approach.

What convinced the Harvard Library to remove the book?

Considering the book was a part of Harvard’s collection for so long, it may come as a surprise it was suddenly removed. But behind the scenes, it took a lot of effort from professionals to convince Harvard to remove the book. In 2022, there was a report by the Harvard Steering Committee about the human remains within Harvard’s collection. The report brought to light many of the concerns about how over the years, such museum collections bring up moral and ethical complications.

We must begin to confront the reality of a past in which academic curiosity and opportunity overwhelmed humanity.

Lawrence Bacow, Report of the Steerling Committee on Human Remains in University Museum Collections

Two rare book experts, Paul Needham and John Lancaster, have been asking Harvard since 2014 to remove the book and return the remains to France. The back-and-forth went on for nearly a decade before the book was removed. In a recent interview from Needham, he accused Harvard of not taking action fast enough and requiring prodding to finally remove the book. While experts grow more concerned with morals, some libraries and museums still wish to hold onto historical artifacts despite the ethics.

Will Harvard remove other items made from human remains?

While Harvard made statements apologizing for its treatment of Des destinées de l’ame, that doesn’t mean there are plans to remove all human remains from the museum’s collection. Harvard has addressed that the book is a sign of a larger problem and acknowledges that it should’ve been treating the artifacts differently. However, it’s unclear how long it may take for similar artifacts to be removed.

Students studying at long tables in the Harvard Library.
IMAGE VIA HARVARD UNIVERSITY

For large universities and ethical complaints, it takes a while for such concerns to make a real impact. However, experts such as Paul Needham and John Lancaster continue to confront institutions and make sure controversial materials are given proper treatment. While it may be a while before all concerns are addressed, universities like Harvard are starting to take new steps to properly care for all of the items in their libraries and museums.


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