Harvard apologizes after removing human skin binding from 1880s book

The Harvard Library made an announcement regarding the removal of human skin that had been utilized to bind a book dating back to the 1880s.

Discovered at the Houghton Library, the edition of Arsène Houssaye’s “Des destinées de l’âme” has been part of the university’s collections since 1934, as stated in a news release released by the university.

The decision to remove the human skin came after a 2022 report by the Harvard University Steering Committee on the usage of human remains in university museum collections.

“Upon extensive examination, engagement with stakeholders, and deliberation, the Harvard Library and the Harvard Museum Collections Returns Committee determined that the human remains utilized in the book’s binding are no longer appropriate for the Harvard Library collections, given the morally complicated nature of the book’s origins and subsequent journey,” stated the university.

To whom did the remains pertain?

Without authorization, French doctor Dr. Ludovic Bouland used skin from a deceased female patient’s body at the hospital where he practiced to bind the book. According to Harvard, Bouland, a lover of books, was born in 1839 and passed away in 1933.

Following his demise, the volume was integrated into the library’s collections and was put on deposit by John B. Stetson, Jr., an American diplomat and businessman. Donated to the library by his widow Ruby F. Stetson in 1954, two years after his passing, Stetson, a Harvard graduate, played a significant role in the book’s journey to the collection.

When did the university validate the human remains?

In 2014, the university verified that the book’s binding was indeed fashioned from human remains, according to Tom Hyry, the associate university librarian for Archives and Special Collections.

In a Q&A published by the school, Hyry mentioned that Harvard will address human remains within its collections as part of an enduring university initiative.

“On behalf of Harvard Library, we express regret for past oversights in managing the book, which further dehumanized and tarnished the dignity of the individual at the core,” expressed Hyry. “We are dedicated to proceeding with caution, compassion, and ethical accountability and are devoted to adhering to industry best practices, including introspection and rectifying historical inaccuracies.”

Why was human skin utilized to bind the Harvard book

Published in 1879, “Des destinées de l’âme” served as a contemplation on the soul and the afterlife, remarked Hyry.

Bouland included a handwritten note in the book declaring that “a book discussing the human soul warranted a human wrapping.”

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