Arsène Houssaye's Des destinées de l'âme in Harvard's Houghton Library (Harvard Houghton Library)
Arsène Houssaye's Des destinées de l'âme in Harvard's Houghton Library (Harvard Houghton Library)Harvard Houghton Library

Harvard University scientists and conservators on Wednesday, 4 June 2014 confirmed that a rare book that has been preserved in one of the university's library has a binding of human skin. The discovery is remarkable as the book is the only known skin bound book to be present in Harvard.

According to Senior Rare Book Conservator Alan Puglia, they are 99 percent confident that the book Arsène Houssaye's Des destinées de l'âme kept in the Harvard's Houghton Library is of human origin.

The book from the 19th-century old is a collection of essays, a meditation on human soul and life after death. The author of the book, Houssaye presented the book to his friend, Dr. Ludocvic Bouland, who then rebound the book using skin of an unknown woman's back, who died from stroke during 19th century in a French Mental Hospital, according to Houghton Library Blog.

Houssaye's book had a note that read: "This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. 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 scientists were confident of the source of Houssaye's book, after they examined a series of tests to determine the material used for binding. Microscopic samples from various locations on the book were taken. Highly precise peptide mass fingerprinting test was employed to verify the proteins required to create a "peptide mass fingerprint (PMF)", thus allowing the examiners to identify the material.

"The PMF from Des destinées de l'amematched the human reference, and clearly eliminated other common parchment sources, such as sheep, cattle and goat. However, although the PMF was consistent with human, other closely related primates, such as the great apes and gibbons, could not be eliminated because of the lack of necessary references." Bill Lane, director of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory explained in a blog.

There were three such books that were suspected to be human skin bound in Harvard University. But tests found that two out of three were bound in sheep skin.

"The analytical data, taken together with the provenance of Des destinées de l'âme, make it very unlikely that the source could be other than human," Lane added.

While books bound in human skin are work of fascination and revulsion in present days, the practice was once common. The binding of books in human skin was termed anthropodermic bibliopegy that was practiced since the 16th century. The confessions of criminals were bound in the convict's skin as a form of punishment or an individual might request to be remembered by lovers or family in the form of a skin bound book.