Amidst its impressive collections of military antiques and history of science materials, the John Hay Library also has three slightly macabre, lesser-known artifacts: ordinary-appearing books that are in fact bound in human skin.
The three books are the anatomy text titled “De Humani Corpis Fabrica” and two editions of the folktale “Dance of Death.” The Hay acquired the books in the 1960s as gifts from two alums, at least one an avid book-collector.
The books are part of the Hay collection both for research purposes and for their sheer uniqueness, said Sam Streit, director of the Hay. The anatomy book, nicknamed Vesalius after the author Andreas Vesalius, is often used by scholars because “it is useful in the study of human anatomy, historically speaking,” Streit said.
The two copies of “Dance of Death” are primarily of interest to researchers because of the books’ illustrations – a series of woodcuts by the younger Hans Holbein. Streit added the books are also interesting for those who study the history of books and book-making arts.
The books were not originally bound in human skin, Streit said. “They were rebound for other private collectors in the 19th century,” he said, although the binding does not “increase the value dramatically” today.
“They’re more idiosyncrasies than treasures,” Streit said.
“There are some big ethical issues that come to the fore here,” said Jay Baruch, clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine at Brown and director of the Ocean State Ethics Network. “One is the notion is that the body is sacred. Does using body parts in such a way somewhat cheapen our conception of the body?” he asked.
Another concern is informed consent, something that “is on the minds of people, with organ donation and stem cell research,” Baruch said, particularly considering “the situation by which the skin was taken.”
Streit agreed that there are general ethical questions associated with owning books with anthropodermic binding, but also said that the books were bound in a different era and things that are shocking now were less disturbing back then.
“It was also a romantic notion and kind of an intellectual tie-in to the content of the books,” Streit said.
Laura Hartman, a rare book cataloguer in the history of medicine division of the National Library of Medicine, used to tend five books bound in human leather – part of the collection of John Stockton Hough, a Philadelphia-trained physician and book collector of the late 19th century – at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
Hartman theorized that “the small trend among physicians to have their books bound in human leather” originally stems from respectful intentions.
“It could have been those physicians’ tribute to these patients for their contribution to medical research,” Hartman said. “Trichinosis was discovered from one of Stockton’s patients.”
Nonetheless, the unusual bindings on the books in the Hay continue to disgust and fascinate modern readers and bibliophiles.
“One of the things that has made people uneasy about the books is the Nazis,” Streit said, referring to the Nazi practice of flaying their victims and putting their skin to various uses.
But none of the books date from World War II-era Germany. The older edition of “Dance of Death” was rebound in London by a well-known bookbinder in 1893, while the later edition was done in Chicago in 1898.
The identities of the people whose skins are now bindings are unknown.
Streit said that skin for bindings often came from paupers – “people without families whose bodies were often sold to medical schools and skin sold to binders.”
For Baruch, the origin of the bindings raises questions regarding abuses of power and the treatment of “vulnerable populations.”
“The fact the human skin was used for the books is an occasion for inquiry,” Baruch said. “If Brown makes efforts to find the story behind this, that could indicate a sign of respect.”
But determining these identities could be both costly and damaging to the books. “I don’t think we could, nor would we want to, go through the trouble and expense of finding out,” Streit said. “The tanning process destroys much of the DNA.”
Like Streit, Baruch also saw the merits of not pursuing the identities out of “respect for the dead” and to avoid raising descendants’ anxieties.
Binding books in human skin was never a widespread prac-tice, Hartman said, Although “for physicians, it could have been something very clinical. … It’s very bizarre and I think it leaves us all a bit squeamish today,” Hartman said.