The Bizarre Art of Binding Books in Human Skin

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Mutter Museum

Helpful as its developments are, the field of modern medicine can be macabre, sickening, and even downright strange. We’ve left the leeches and holy water in the Middle Ages (for the most part), but some of the ideas that doctors have cooked up in the past two centuries in the name of science have exceeded anything ever done over a twitching plague victim. One such head-scratcher is a hobby of 19th century physician Joseph Leidy, who remembered his deceased patients by tanning their skin and using it to bind his favorite medical textbooks.

Yes, you read that right.

The dedication on the frontispiece of Leidy’s personal copy of his book An Elementary Treatise on Human Anatomy reads:

“The leather with which this book is bound is human skin, from a soldier who died during the great Southern Rebellion.” 

The binding itself looks soft, almost tender in its smooth beige ridges. One wonders what part of that nameless corporal or private it came from.

The bizarre art of binding books in human skin, or anthropodermic bibliopegy, dates back to at least the 17th century, and involves flaying the body and tanning the skin just like any other type of leather. It has most often been used by doctors as a way to honor a deceased patient or medical colleague, meaning that many surviving examples are anatomical texts such as Leidy’s. Several American universities, including Harvard and the University of Georgia, quietly keep an anthropodermic book or two (Brown supposedly has three), and the University of Pennsylvania library had to put in a distress call to the Admissions office after a tour guide happened to mention their rare skin-bound copy of Biblotheque Nationale and the library was flooded with curious potential students.

The donor of UPenn’s anthropodermic treasure, John Stockton Hough, was in fact a colleague of Dr. Leidy, a prominent Philadelphia physician who taught in the university’s dissection labs in the 1850s through the 1880s. Fairly obscure today, Leidy was well regarded in his lifetime as an anatomist, zoologist, paleontologist, and parasite expert. Besides publishing his anatomical treatise and treating Pennsylvania’s Civil War wounded, he put together the first near-complete skeleton of dinosaur fossils found in New Jersey and became an early advocate for Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Today, Leidy’s collection is on display at the College of Physicians’ Mütter Museum of medical oddities (a great way to spend an afternoon if you’re ever in Philly and hankering for a gallstone collection or a couple of deformed fetuses in jars). The dimly-lit shelf where Leidy’s book sits quietly next to a human-skin wallet and other examples of memorial tannery appears to be regarded impassively by a collection of European skulls, flanked by a section of primate skulls for comparison and by a handful of antique gynecological instruments. Elsewhere in the museum, on the floor above the death cast of conjoined “Siamese” twins Chang and Eng Bunker and the world’s largest colon, lies one of Leidy’s other great donations, a cadaver known as the Soap Lady: her 200-year-old corpse took on its black, sticky appearance when the heat and pressure of her grave transformed the fat in her body into a soapy substance called adipocere.

The emphasis of both the display of Dr. Leidy’s skin-bound books and the museum as a whole is that the curiosities on display are there for educational and even artistic purposes; they’re not simply freaks, or unfortunate quirks of the gene pool, but deeply human artifacts that can help us to riddle out the mysteries of disease and suffering. Just as the cadavers in his 1800s dissecting classroom helped Leidy teach his students the internal wonders of the human body, his book collection helps us to puzzle out what’s left on the outside after we die, and how it can be useful or beautiful when preserved from the ravages of time and decay.

Barnes & Noble bookstores’ website still offers a free copy of Leidy’s anatomical treatise, by the way, reprinted from the 1889 edition. It’s only an e-book, though, so the skin binding will have to be left up to you.  

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July 16, 2013 - 1:00pm
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