Skin tight book found in Harvard University library

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  • Published: Jun 5, 2014
  • Author: Steve Down
  • Channels: Atomic / Proteomics / Infrared Spectroscopy / UV/Vis Spectroscopy / X-ray Spectrometry / NMR Knowledge Base / MRI Spectroscopy / Raman / Base Peak / Chemometrics & Informatics

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Scientists at Harvard University have confirmed that an old book in their collection is bound in human skin. The book in question is Des destinées de l’ame (The Destiny of the Soul) by Arsène Houssaye and its binding has long thought to have been skin, although its origin has never been proven.

The suspicions are well-founded. An autographed insert in the book by a previous owner of the book, Ludovic Bouland, states: "This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. …. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman." The woman is believed to be female mental patient who died of a stroke.

The skin has been distinguished from that of other potential species, such as sheep, cattle and goat by mass spectrometric analysis of tiny pieces of the binding. They confirmed that it originated from a primate, but could not rule out other species like gibbons or apes. A second analysis using liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry of the constituent amino acids that make up the proteins in the skin confirmed that it is indeed human.

"The analytical data, taken together with the provenance of Des destinées de l’ame, make it very unlikely that the source could be other than human," said Bill Lane from the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory.

This practice, officially termed anthropodermic bibliopegy, seems abhorrent in modern times but it used to be common practice. The skin often came from criminals who had been executed and their bodies donated to medical science.

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