Brown University’s library boasts an anatomy book that combines form and function in macabre fashion. Its cover -- tanned and polished to a smooth golden brown, like fine leather -- is made of human skin.
A number of the nation’s finest libraries, including the one at Harvard University, have such books in their collections. The practice of binding books in human skin was not uncommon in centuries past, even if it was not always discussed in polite society.
At the time, the best libraries belonged to private collectors. Some were doctors who had access to skin from amputated parts and patients whose bodies had gone unclaimed. In other cases, wealthy bibliophiles acquired skin from executed criminals, medical school cadavers and people who died in the poorhouse.
Nowadays, libraries keep such volumes in their rare-book collections and do not allow them to circulate. But scholars can examine them.
Brown’s John Hay Library has three books bound in human skin -- the 1568 anatomy text by the Belgian surgeon Andreas Vesalius, and two 19th century editions of “The Dance of Death,” a medieval morality tale.
One copy of “The Dance of Death” was rebound in 1893 by Joseph Zaehnsdorf, a master binder in London. A note to his client reports that he did not have enough skin and had to split it. The front cover, bound in the outer layer of skin, has a slightly bumpy texture, like soft sandpaper. The spine and back cover, made from the inner layer, feel like suede.
“The Dance of Death” is about how death prevails over all, rich or poor. As with many other skin-bound volumes, “there was some tie-in with the content of the book,” said Sam Streit, director of the John Hay Library.
Similarly, many of the volumes are medical books. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia has some books bound by Dr. John Stockton Hough, who diagnosed 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,” said Laura Hartman, a rare-book cataloger at the National Library of Medicine in Maryland and author of a paper on the subject.
In most cases, universities and other libraries acquired the books as donations or as part of collections they purchased.
It is unclear whether some of the patients knew what would happen to their bodies. In most cases, the skin appears to have come from poor people who had no one to claim their remains. The practice took place well before the modern age of consent forms and organ donor cards.
Although human leather may be repulsive to contemporary society, libraries can ethically have the books in their collections if they are used respectfully for academic research and not displayed as objects of curiosity, said Paul Wolpe of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.
“There is a certain distancing that history gives us from certain kinds of artifacts,” Wolpe said. “If you had called me and said these are books from Nazi Germany, I would have a very different response.”
The Boston Athenaeum, a private library, has an 1837 copy of George Walton’s memoirs bound in his own skin. Walton was a highwayman -- a robber who specialized in ambushing travelers -- and left the volume to one of his victims.
The Cleveland Public Library has a Koran that may have been bound in the skin of its previous owner, an Arab tribal leader.
Decades ago, the Harvard Law School Library bought a 1605 manual for Spanish lawyers for $42.50 from an antiquarian books dealer in New Orleans. It sat on a shelf unnoticed until the early 1990s, when curator David Ferris was going through the library catalog and found a note saying it was bound in a man’s skin.
DNA tests to see whether that is true were inconclusive; the genetic material was destroyed by the tanning process. But the library had a box made to store the book and now keeps it on a special shelf.
“We felt we couldn’t set it just next to someone else’s law books,” Ferris said.