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Harvard is pretty sure it owns a book bound by human skin

The book could be wrapped in the skin of a great ape or a gibbon, but that's "extremely unlikely"

Prachi Gupta
June 6, 2014 1:16AM (UTC)

Harvard scientists have all-but confirmed that a 19th century book in the university's Houghton Library is bound by human skin, reports the New York Times. The book in question, Arsène Houssaye’s French treatise, “Des destinées de l’ame” (On the Destiny of the Soul), may have been bound by the skin of a woman's back:

The Houssaye book, deposited at Harvard’s Houghton Library in 1934, contains a manuscript note claiming that the book was bound in skin taken from the back of a woman, since “a book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.” Researchers confirmed the claim using several techniques, including peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF), which identifies proteins.

“The PMF from ‘Des destinées de l’ame’ matched the human reference, and clearly eliminated other common parchment sources, such as sheep, cattle and goat,” Bill Lane, the director of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory, and Daniel Kirby, of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, told the Houghton Library Blog.

Though the test does not eliminate the possibility that the book is bound by the skin of a "great ape or a gibbon," scientists claim this is "extremely unlikely." The practice dates back to at least the 16th Century, so hey, maybe a few more of these will turn up!


Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at pgupta@salon.com.

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