Human Skin Removed from Harvard Book as University Apologizes for 'Past Failures'

The 19th-century book was available to anyone who asked for it for any reason until recently, according to the Ivy League school

<p>Getty</p> Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts


Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Harvard University announced Wednesday that it had removed human skin from the binding of Des destinées de l'âme, a book from Houghton Library, after a review found the book failed to meet "ethical standards."

The 19th-century book's first owner French physician Dr. Ludovic Bouland “bound the book with skin he took without consent from the body of a deceased female patient in a hospital where he worked,” Harvard said in a statement.

The Ivy League school said the removal followed a review by the Houghton Library of the book’s stewardship, prompted by the recommendations of a Harvard University report on the human remains in its museum collections.

"After careful study, stakeholder engagement, and consideration, Harvard Library and the Harvard Museum Collections Returns Committee concluded that the human remains used in the book’s binding no longer belong in the Harvard Library collections, due to the ethically fraught nature of the book’s origins and subsequent history," the university said in its release.

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“The Library is now in the process of conducting additional provenance and biographical research into the book, Bouland, and the anonymous female patient, as well as consulting with appropriate authorities at the University and in France to determine a final respectful disposition of these human remains,” Harvard added.

"In the course of its review, the library noted several ways in which its stewardship practices failed to meet the level of ethical standards to which it subscribes," according to the university.

According to a Q&A, Tom Hyry, associate university librarian for archives and special collections, said the book, which had been at the library since the 1930s, included a handwritten note inside saying "a book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.”

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Until recently, the library has made the book available to anyone who asked for it for any reason, according to the institution.

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“Lore suggests that decades ago, students employed to page collections in Houghton’s stacks were hazed by being asked to retrieve the book without being told it included human remains,” the statement continued.

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When the university confirmed the book had been bound in human skin in 2014, Hyry said the decision to announce the finding by focusing "on the morbid nature of the object, rather than on the person whose skin was used without consent or its moral implications" is something the institution regrets "deeply."

“We apologize on behalf of Harvard Library for past failures in our stewardship of the book that further objectified and compromised the dignity of the human being at the center,” Hyry said.

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