Morbid and Misunderstood

The science and history of books bound in human skin


About 50 books are known to exist in the world that are allegedly bound in human skin—and it’s possible that there are many more. Believe it or not, these dark books were not made by Nazis, serial killers, or occultists, nor were they churned out in a nightmare factory during the French Revolution. No, they were made mostly by doctors in the 19th century. How and why such books came to be is the subject of Dark Archives, by rare-books specialist and UCLA medical librarian Megan Rosenbloom. She’s one of the founders of the Anthropodermic Book Project, whose team has used a simple protein test called peptide mass fingerprinting to confirm that, as of October 2020, 18 books were bound in human skin. What sort of person would do this? How did they get away with it, and what does this ghoulish practice tell us about the clinical gaze? Megan Rosenbloom joins us on the podcast this week to discuss the history of anthropodermic bibliopegy, the evolution of medical ethics and consent, and the controversial question of what we do now with the very human remains of this grim legacy.

Go beyond the episode:

Images below courtesy of the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia:

Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.

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Music featured from Master Toad (“Dreadful Mansion”), Dead End Canada (“Witch Hunt”), and 8bit Betty (“Spooky Loop”), courtesy of the Free Music Archive. Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman.

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Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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