Standing in front of a display case at the Mütter Museum at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, medical librarian Megan Rosenbloom was captivated by a book allegedly bound in human skin. Her curiosity about how and why such objects exist, and whether most are real at all, led to the hands-on and historical investigations that make up Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin.
This is an excellent, if macabre, history, but perhaps key to appreciating it is understanding what it is. Whatever I was expecting in a book about human skin books (anthropodermic bibliopegy, to use the scientific term), it wasn’t this. Although she has no shortage of horror stories of how these books came to exist, the real story underneath the ghoulishness is around the foundations of clinical medicine, and how doctors came to see patients as something less than human. Rosenbloom delves into specific instances where that led to creating these nightmarish books.
Anthropodermic books tell a complicated and uncomfortable tale about the development of clinical medicine and the doctoring class, and the worst of what can come from the collision of acquisitiveness and a distanced clinical gaze.
That’s right — doctors are the real villains in this story, not Nazis, as I would’ve guessed if I’d had to. That’s me generalizing, Rosenbloom explains, and her discoveries around what Nazis did or more accurately didn’t do with skin was a revelation here. Acknowledging that most people would think that even if a doctor made this kind of book, it must’ve been in the Nazi era, she emphatically states “there are no human skin books from that time.” This is full of surprises.
But as much solid detective work as Rosenbloom puts in — traveling throughout the US and Europe, examining and testing rare books in collections that sound simply incredible — there are still a lot of unknowns. At times that’s unsatisfying, like when it’s around personal motivation, but that’s the nature of studying history, especially when people are doing things they know they shouldn’t be. I prefer the honesty about where there are gaps instead of those historians who fill them in with speculation or guesswork.
Her exploration of the connection of medical abuses to women, people of color and the poor and marginalized was excellently done and thorough. Particularly the exploration of what the medical profession has done to Black patients and Black communities, and some data about how Black patients continue to be treated and viewed differently today.
The idea of a doctor creating a book bound in human skin might not seem as shocking to people who know this history. Conversely, the true origins of anthropodermic books tend to surprise those with markedly higher trust in the medical profession.
It was well written but because it jumped frequently between stories it felt complicated trying to absorb so much information in one reading. It’s definitely one to return to, even if that sounds odd. I’ve been reading and thinking a lot this past year about empathy in medicine, and it’s a topic that I think patients as well as doctors would do better to consider, and that includes the history of why many physicians feel a remove from their patients in the first place. Rosenbloom makes this history completely fascinating.
She writes briefly at the end about her plans for her body after death, which at first felt a bit out of place but ended up interesting in how she tied the ethical issues and potential complications into her greater look at ideas about consent. This topic was something that surprised me, as several of the figures she tracks “consented” to their skin being used for bookbinding, and yet consent around bodily remains isn’t quite so simple. As Rosenbloom deftly shows, even today, organ donation and body donation for medical schools are not straightforward.
These are all fascinating ideas to consider, both because it’s something we all eventually have to consider, it inevitably involves our surviving families so things can get complex, and the ethical issues are perhaps surprisingly tangly. (Sue Black’s All That Remains is also a good introduction to the importance of body donations in medical schools and ideas around what this means.)
This isn’t so much a scary story as a sad one, because viewing patients as less than human is horrible, and yet it happens all the time, only now in less viscerally gruesome, but still dangerous and damaging, ways. The history behind how this occurred is very worth knowing.
In the face of stress and exhaustion, young doctors cope by turning their patients into more manageable objects. It’s this mindset that could eventually have led doctors in the past to dehumanizing abuses like creating anthropodermic books. Though the abuses of depersonalization might look different today than when these books were made, the detrimental effects of the clinical gaze on patients endure.
A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin
by Megan Rosenbloom
published October 20, 2020 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux