The Macabre History of Human Skin Books

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.

Dark Archives:
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

33 thoughts on “The Macabre History of Human Skin Books

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    1. I felt a little uncomfortable about it too, and actually almost let my library hold expire without picking it up because I wasn’t really sure I wanted to read it. So if it’s any consolation, it didn’t end up feeling upsetting, it’s informative and sensitive and well done. Just in case your morbid curiosity wins out 🙂

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  1. Okay, so at first I was like, “hmmmm, do I want to read a book about the use of human skin as a cover…” but now I’m like, “do I want to read a book that will give me more reasons to distrust doctors?” Don’t get me wrong, there are so many wonderful doctors out there but I think women are disproportionately treated as objects by medical professionals and I have certainly met my fair share of doctors suffering from depersonalization. Great review though and it has certainly caught me intrigued!

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    1. I completely understand! As I mentioned in another comment I was so unsure about whether I actually wanted to read it that I almost let my library hold expire. I couldn’t be more happy that I changed my mind!

      About doctors, that’s been something I’ve felt the need to deal with because of my own bad treatment and the only way I know how to cope is to learn how to advocate for myself and understand what a clinician’s perspective is so I can better tailor my own responses and reactions. It sucks that it has to be that way but it is. And I know what you mean, it’s not every doctor but it’s too many. I thought this was really helpful in understanding the historical roots of where those depersonalization ideas and habits come from and why, as well as just some fascinating bits of history that maybe you wouldn’t think were involved – French Revolution, etc. I loved it, I think if you’re even the least bit interested it’s well worth the read!

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      1. I have already put it on hold at my library! I couldn’t agree more about advocacy. I taught a class for a while to marginalized populations (literally everyone but straight, able, white men) about self-advocacy in the health care setting. It is so important! And knowing this information only helps us all feel strong and credible in our requests. Thanks again!

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      2. Omg I had no idea you did work like that, that is amazing! I wish I could take that class with you!!! Thank you for helping people with that information. It took me way too long to understand it and I still make mistakes but I’m getting there and creating my own education from reading about it is helping. Glad I could recommend this one to you — excited to hear what you think of it!

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      3. The next time I hold one, I will loop you in (if you are still interested!). Mine are always free because everyone should feel comfortable being a self-advocate but so many things work against it in medical situations.

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  2. Okay, this is exactly the sort of horrifying must-read I never knew I needed… Books bound in human skin is a possibility that has honestly never crossed my mind and absolutely repulses me, but the connection to medical abuses still persisting today in new forms seems like great fodder for wonderful- and memorable- commentary. I’ll definitely be adding this one to my list, though I might have to read it from the corner of my eye instead of looking at this content head-on, haha. Great review!

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    1. Yes, exactly!! I was sort of morbidly interested and just curious but it ended up covering so much more ground than I expected and I learned a lot from it. It’s such an important area, especially with health care on so many people’s minds right now. If it helps to know, there were only a few particularly squicky parts and as a squeamish person I can promise they’re not too bad! Actually I think it’s why some people might be bored with it or at least disappointed that it’s not what they expected. It’s much more around the social circumstances of each instance and sometimes the historical reasoning of why macabre rumors existed when they’re not the truth. I think you’d get a lot out of it, glad I could convince you!!

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  3. It’s good to hear that the author admits to the gaps and leaves them rather than filling them with speculation. I have seen one such book (I worked for a year in the special collections of a university library) and ughhh.

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    1. Oh wow, I can’t believe you saw one! Are you sure it was a confirmed one? Many of the ones she’s told are human end up not being so once they chemically test them. But just the thought of it, or why a rumor got started, is eerie enough.

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  4. I did not know this was A Thing. Macabre, yes. But also fascinating. And we all know where scientists got (or get) cadavers for medical experiments… I think Mary Roach talks about this too a bit, in Spook and Stiff.

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    1. Yes! So much creepy stuff in medical history, it’s bizarre to consider, especially with how revered the profession is. (I can’t remember if that was in Spook but I loved that one and I have Stiff on my shelf!)

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      1. Oh yeah, I think you’re right. It was such a great book, I loved it. It’s actually the only one of hers I’ve read so far, as I wasn’t all that interested in the topics of the others. But I loved her writing and research style.

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  5. Yuck human skin books. Just why?? As if there are not enough other materials to use. I thought the Nazis made lampshades. I mean, they were not going miss the chance to be evil and depraved in any way.

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    1. The lampshade rumor is a big one but she debunks it here, including the book the other guy wrote about the one mentioned in the article you linked. They can chemically test the skin and they did on that lampshade and I think it was cow. Surprisingly the Nazis weren’t involved in this area at all although that’s everyone’s first thought.

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  6. I’m weirdly interested in reading about death and death-adjacent topics, but primarily for the ethical and philosophical considerations. Based mostly on my judging this book by the title, I expected something with a more materialistic and perhaps more prurient interest. Your review makes me much more excited about picking this up, since it seems like it deals with broader themes than I expected.

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    1. Oh I think you would LOVE this one! There is some element of the materialistic in terms of collecting, like one of the doctors was obsessed with collecting rare medical texts, but it’s much more about the dehumanization. The ethical and philosophical were at the forefront for most of it, and in ways that I hadn’t really expected, like that some people consented to what could happen with their remains after death but it wasn’t so simple. I think especially with the background you have in reading about different medical topics that you’d find it really interesting for that perspective.

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