A BOOK BINDING FROM HUMAN SKIN. Harvard vows to make 'respectful final disposition' of 19th century remains.

OF the roughly 20 million books in Harvard University's libraries, one has long exerted a unique dark fascination, not for its contents, but for the material it was reputedly bound in : human skin.

For years, - the volume - a 19th century French treatise on the human soul - was brought out for show and tell, and sometimes, according to library lore, used to haze new employees. In 2014, the university drew jokey news coverage around the world with the announcement that it had used new technology to confirm that the binding was in fact human skin.

But one recent Wednesday, after years of criticism and debate, the university announced that it had removed the binding and would be exploring options for '' a final respectful disposition of these human remains.''

'' After careful study, stakeholder engagement, and consideration, Harvard Library and the Harvard Museum Collections Returns Committee concluded that the humans remains used in the book's binding no longer belong in Harvard Library Collections, due to the ethically fraught nature of the book's origins and subsequent history,'' the university said in a statement.

Harvard also said that its own handling of the book, a copy of  Arsene Houssaye's '' DES DESTINNES  de L'Ame, or. '' The Destiny of Souls,'' had failed to live upto the '' ethical standards '' of care, and sometimes used an inappropriately '' sensationalistic, morbid and humorous tone,'' in publicising it.

The library apologized, saying that it ''further objectified'' and compromised the dignity of the human being whose remains were used for its binding.''

The announcement came more than three years after the university announced a broad survey of the human remains across its collections, as part of the intensifying reckoning with the role of slavery and colonialism in establishing universities and museums.

In a statement, Harvard's president at the time, Lawrence S. Bacow, apologized for the university's role in practices that '' placed the academic enterprise above respect for the dead and human decency.''

A report released in 2022 identified more than 20,000 human remains in Harvard's collections, ranging from full skeletons to locks of hair, bone fragments and teeth.

They included the remains of about 6,500 Native Americans, whose handling is governed by the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, as well as 19 from people of African descent who may have been enslaved.

The survey also highlighted items whose origins lay outside the context of colonialism and slavery, including ancient funerary urns that may contain ashes or bone fragments, early-20th century dental samples and, at Houghton Library, the Houssaye book.

The book arrived at Harvard in 1934, via the American diplomat John B Stetson, an heir to the hat fortune. It had been bound by its first owner, Dr. Ludovic Bouland, a French doctor who inserted a handwritten note saying that the book about human soul deserved to have a human covering.''

A memo from Stetson, according to Houghton, said that Bouland had taken the skin from an unknown woman who had died in a French psychiatric hospital.

The World Students Society thanks authors Jennifer Schuessler and Julia Jacobs.


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