April 13, 2024

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Harvard apologizes for having French book bound in human skin

Harvard apologizes for having French book bound in human skin

America's prestigious Harvard University has apologized for keeping a French book bound in human skin from the 1880s for nearly a century, but it will be decommissioned.

In a press release received Thursday, the library service of America's oldest university noted that “the human skin has been removed from the binding of Houghton's copy of Arsene Houssay's book + Des destines de l'âme + (1880s).

Harvard Libraries Service acknowledges its failures in this regard, which undermine the dignity of a human being used to bind the book. We apologize to the victims.

The university, founded in 1636 in Cambridge, a suburb of Boston (Massachusetts, northeast), lamented that these “practices did not conform to the ethical standards it had set for itself.”

Arsène Houssaye (1814-1896) was a French writer, journalist, literary critic and collector whose work “Des destines de l'âme” is a reflection and meditation on the afterlife.

The book, owned since 1934 by a former student at the turn of the 20th century, is bound in human flesh and skin, the Harvard Library Service revealed in 2014 after scientific tests.


Ten years earlier, Harvard explained, the French author had shown his book to Ludovic Bouland (1839-1933), a doctor and bibliographer. The latter had the idea of ​​attaching the work to the skin of a patient suffering from mental disorders who died suddenly. “Without any consent,” Harvard notes.

Experts call this practice “anthropological bibliography.”

Dr. Bowland published a note in the press in 2014: “This book is bound in human skin on parchment (…) If you look carefully, you can easily see the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserves human clothing.

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Harvard said, “The library is now researching the provenance and biographical elements of the book, Bouland and the anonymous patient, and is consulting with competent authorities at the university and in France to determine how to respectfully dispose of these human remains.”

The New York Times recalls that Harvard, which maintains libraries and museums, completed a large inventory of more than 20,000 human remains in its collection of books and works of art in 2022.

A way to recognize its role in slavery and colonization since the late 17th century, according to the newspaper.