Libraries find books bound in human skin

January 13, 2006

The use of human skin as a book-binding material came under the spotlight this week after macabre discoveries in university libraries in the US, writes Paul Hill.

According to the latest edition of Forbes Magazine , skin-bound volumes have been found in a number of US institutions, most recently a copy of a 16th-century anatomy text by Vesalius and two 19th-century editions of a medieval morality tale, The Dance of Death , at Brown University.

How many books in UK university collections are bound in human skin is unclear.

Three volumes at the Wellcome Library, the national collection of texts on medicine and its history, were reputed to be bound in human skin. It is now thought that only one is bound that way, a 17th-century text on anatomy that was rebound in the 19th century.

Frances Norton, head of the Wellcome Library, said: "It was common in previous centuries. I would imagine all the specialist collections have volumes bound in human skin from the 15th century.

"I would guess the British Library and so on - anywhere with a collection of books of that age - would have a small number. They would no doubt be in closed access collections where you need to sign an undertaking and have a research reason to examine them."

In the early 1990s, a curator at Harvard Law School came across catalogue notes to a 1605 legal manual that suggested it was bound in human skin, but DNA testing proved inconclusive.

Meanwhile, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia has books on the skin condition trichinosis bound by medic John Stockton Hough, who used a patient's skin to bind three volumes.

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