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Harvard Removes Skin Binding From Book, Apologizes for ‘Past Failures’

Houghton Library is located in Harvard Yard. The University removed the human skin binding from a book held in the Library.
Houghton Library is located in Harvard Yard. The University removed the human skin binding from a book held in the Library. By Christopher Hidalgo
By Madeline E. Proctor, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard removed the human skin binding from a book held in Houghton Library and apologized for “past failures in its stewardship of the book” in a statement Wednesday.

The announcement marks the conclusion of an internal review after the book — Arsène Houssaye’s “Des destinées de l’ame,” French for “On the Destiny of the Soul” — was mentioned in the Fall 2022 Report of the Steering Committee on Human Remains in University Museum Collections.

In the statement, Harvard Library apologized for having “objectified and compromised the dignity of the human being whose remains were used for its binding.”

Harvard Library spokesperson Kerry Conley wrote in a separate emailed statement that the library regrets “two sensationalist blog posts” from 2014 — which were since deleted — describing the book in gleefully dark terms.

“While the media seemed interested in the morbid nature of the object, there were several people who objected to the tone of the posts and to the book. We agreed with the criticism and amended our blog posts,” wrote Conley.

The book was first given to Harvard in 1934 by John B. Stetson, Jr., Class of 1906. A now-missing memo by Stetson which accompanied the book revealed that Ludovic Bouland, a 19th-century French doctor, took the skin from a female psychiatric patient’s back after she died.

Harvard wrote on Wednesday that the University is still researching the woman’s identity and is working toward respectfully laying her remains to rest.

“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,” the statement said.

The announcement follows a decade-long effort from rare book experts Paul Needham and John Lancaster calling on Harvard to remove the book from its holdings and repatriate the remains to France.

Since 2014, the duo have corresponded with top administrators including former Harvard Presidents Claudine Gay and Lawrence S. Bacow, as well as faculty involved in the University’s ongoing repatriation efforts, urging them to take action on the book.

Houghton Library began restricting access to the book in 2015, according to a Q&A with Houghton’s Associate Librarian Anne-Marie Eze published alongside the University’s statement Wednesday.

“We started placing restrictions on access in 2015 and instituted a full moratorium on new research access in February 2023,” Eze said. “We have removed all images of the skin from the HOLLIS catalog, online blog posts, and other channels.”

Last week, Needham, Lancaster, and Rabbi Ruth M. Gais — Needham’s wife — penned an open letter advocating for the book’s repatriation which was published as an advertisement in Friday’s print edition of The Crimson.

In an interview Wednesday, Needham accused Harvard of dragging its heels for years and suggested the University had to be prodded to take action on the book.

“I do believe that their public statements are trying to suppress the fact that the real impetus for doing this came from outside Harvard, and that they refer to the human remains report, the Hammonds Report of September,” Needham said, adding that “it’s pretty clear that nothing happened until John Lancaster and I got in touch.”

In her statement, Conley wrote that Harvard’s own researchers were already aware of the sources cited in research sent by Needham and Lancaster to the University.

Conley added that the removal is “part of the University’s larger project of addressing human remains in our museums and collections.”

“As President Larry S. Bacow noted when he announced the Steering Committee for Human Remains in the University Museum Collections back in 2021, ‘This important work is long overdue,’” she wrote. “We recognize that.”

—Staff writer Madeline E. Proctor can be reached at

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