We were browsing through one of our alumni magazines when we saw an article touting one of the medical library’s holdings: an old anatomy book bound in a tan leather, which was made from human skin. Indeed, a quick search found many such books in libraries across the land. The Boston Globe covered this macabre topic, a few months ago:
A number of prestigious libraries — including Harvard University’s — have such books in their collections. While the idea of making leather from human skin seems bizarre and cruel today, it was not uncommon in centuries past, said Laura Hartman, a rare book cataloger at the National Library of Medicine in Maryland and author of a paper on the subject.
An article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from the late 1800s “suggests that it was common, but it also indicates it wasn’t talked about in polite society,” Hartman said.
The best libraries then belonged to private collectors. Some were doctors who had access to skin from amputated parts and patients whose bodies were not claimed. They found human leather to be relatively cheap, durable and waterproof, Hartman said.
In other cases, wealthy bibliophiles may have acquired the skin from criminals who were executed, cadavers used in medical schools and people who died in the poor house, said Sam Streit, director of Brown’s John Hay Library.
Here’s another take on the practice, with a hint at motivation:
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia has four bound by Dr. John Stockton Hough, known for diagnosing the city’s first case of trichinosis. He used that patient’s skin to bind three of the volumes.
“The hypothesis that I was suggesting is that these physicians did this to honor the people who furthered medical research,” Hartman said.
What would the 21st century equivalent of this practice be? Perhaps inkjet printing of human tissues…