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Was human skin really used in book binding?

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Was human skin really used in book binding?

Asked by Jill Pascoe of Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

The use of human skin to bind books would disgust us today, but it was fairly widely practiced up until about 200 years ago, particularly with medical books.

In centuries gone by, doctors who wrote medical books would sometimes specify that they be bound in human skin. Some doctors even participated in the preparation of human skin for use in book binding.

Dr John Hunter (1728-1793), the famous anatomist, father of British scientific surgery, and the person after whom the London Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of England is named, reputedly commissioned a textbook on dermatology to be bound in human skin.

The skin used was often that of a flogged prisoner who was later executed, particularly a murderer.

In 1821, John Horwood was hanged for murder in Bristol, England in 1821. Horwood's skeleton became a prized exhibit at the Bristol Royal Infirmary. A book containing details of his crime, trial, execution, and dissection was published and retained at the Infirmary. The book was bound with Horwood's skin.

The tanning of the skin was the work of Dr Richard Smith, the distinguished chief surgeon at the Infirmary for nearly 50 years. The classic medical text, Tables of the Skeleton and Muscles of the Human Body by Bernhard Albinus (translated from Latin into English in 1749), not only was bound in human skin, but the original white skin was dyed black. This was intended to reflect one of the subjects within: "On the location and cause of the colour of Ethiopians and of other peoples."

Dr Victor Cornil (1837-1908), the famous professor of pathological anatomy in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Paris and author of Syphillis (1882) the definitive work on the subject at the time, possessed a piece of tattooed human skin from the time of Louis XIII. He had his copy of The Three Musketeers, set during the time of Louis XIII, bound in human skin.

Fortunately, our sensitivities are certainly quite different today.

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au

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