Harvard Takes the High Ground – After 90 Years

Since 1934, Harvard’s library has housed a copy of Des destinées de L’âme (The Destiny of the Soul by Arsène Houssaye).  The book was published in 1879. Dr. Ludovic Bouland, a French physician, acquired a copy and placed a new cover of human skin Ono that copy.  The skin came from an unknown woman who had died in a French psychiatric hospital.  The ghoulish doctor explained in a note placed in the newly covered book that “a book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.” 

After acquiring the book, there were some rumblings within Harvard.  Finally, in 2014, scientific studies were performed on the cover.  Scientists confirmed that it was human skin.  That revelation zoomed across the internet as “good news for fans of anthropodermic bibliopegy, biblomaniacs, and cannibals alike.” [Jennifer Schuessler and Julia Jacobs, “Harvard Removes Book Binding of Human Skin,” New York Times, March 29, 2024, p. A1. ]

At that point the book became an “attention-grabbing, sensationalized display item.” The library began restricting access in 2015.  In February 2023, access was denied to all new researchers.

So, a group of Harvard faculty members, headed by “a scholar of early modern books,” asked for the book binder to be removed and that the woman’s remains be given “a proper burial.”  Their demand was published in the Harvard Crimson as an advertisement.  Thus, the group concerned about sensationalism added to the attraction by advertising its demands.

Harvard has now removed the cover and replaced it a book cover made from trees. The head of the group of professors called the action “the right thing to do.”  Indeed.  The book is now accessible by all.

The library indicates that it will take months “or longer”  to research the original binding and make any decision about its disposition.

Interesting how the thinking process at one of the nation’s allegedly top universities requires research and further analysis to determine what is the right thing to do.

Nonetheless, we must give Harvard credit for at last removing the book cover.  When an elephant takes wing, you do not criticize it for not staying up long enough.

About mmjdiary

Professor Marianne Jennings is an emeritus professor of legal and ethical studies from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, retiring in 2011 after 35 years of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in ethics and the legal environment of business. During her tenure at ASU, she served as director of the Joan and David Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics from 1995-1999. In 2006, she was appointed faculty director for the W.P. Carey Executive MBA Program. She has done consulting work for businesses and professional groups including AICPA, Boeing, Dial Corporation, Edward Jones, Mattel, Motorola, CFA Institute, Southern California Edison, the Institute of Internal Auditors, AIMR, DuPont, AES, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Motorola, Hy-Vee Foods, IBM, Bell Helicopter, Amgen, Raytheon, and VIAD. The sixth edition of her textbook, Case Studies in Business Ethics, was published in February 2011. The ninth edition of her textbook, Business: lts Legal, Ethical and Global Environment was published in January 2011. The 23rd edition of her book, Business Law: Principles and Cases, will be published in January 2013. The tenth edition of her book, Real Estate Law, will also be published in January 2013. Her book, A Business Tale: A Story of Ethics, Choices, Success, and a Very Large Rabbit, a fable about business ethics, was chosen by Library Journal in 2004 as its business book of the year. A Business Tale was also a finalist for two other literary awards for 2004. In 2000 her book on corporate governance was published by the New York Times MBA Pocket Series. Her book on long-term success, Building a Business Through Good Times and Bad: Lessons from Fifteen Companies, Each With a Century of Dividends, was published in October 2002 and has been used by Booz, Allen, Hamilton for its work on business longevity. Her latest book, The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse was published by St. Martin’s Press in July 2006 and has been a finalist for two book awards. Her weekly columns are syndicated around the country, and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Reader's Digest. A collection of her essays, Nobody Fixes Real Carrot Sticks Anymore, first published in 1994 is still being published. She has been a commentator on business issues on All Things Considered for National Public Radio. She has served on four boards of directors, including Arizona Public Service (1987-2000), Zealous Capital Corporation, and the Center for Children with Chronic Illness and Disability at the University of Minnesota. She was appointed to the board of advisors for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators in 2004 and served on the board of trustees for Think Arizona, a public policy think tank. She has appeared on CNBC, CBS This Morning, the Today Show, and CBS Evening News. In 2010 she was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Business Ethics by Trust Across America. Her books have been translated into four different languages. She received the British Emerald award for authoring one of their top 50 articles in management publications, chosen from over 15,000 articles. Personal: Married since 1976 to Terry H. Jennings, Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Deputy County Attorney; five children: Sarah, Sam, and John, and the late Claire and Hannah Jennings.
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