College Students Use X-Rays to Reveal the Contents of a Mysterious Locked Box


Since 2011, curators at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum had wondered what lay inside a mysterious locked box, sitting in their collections along with preserved anatomical specimens, historic medical equipment, and other health-related relics. Now, thanks to a team of college students and an x-ray machine, the famous medical museum finally has an answer: booze.

A physician had donated the old wooden chest to the Mütter Museum, the institution's collections manager, George Grigonis, tells mental_floss. It had belonged to the donor’s father, also a doctor, who said the box was a medical chest filled with pharmaceuticals. However, the box was locked, and no one could open it. “We tried several skeleton keys that fit the profile but still no success,” Grigonis says.

Soon after the Mütter Museum acquired the chest, Grigonis came up with his own theory regarding its purpose. At the time, the Winterthur Museum in Delaware was hosting an exhibit on wine and spirits ephemera from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pictured on the exhibit notification “was a similar chest with glasses and liquor carafes,” Grigonis says. “I connected the dots and figured that was what it contained since the contents rattled like glass. We figured that if we ever had the opportunity to x-ray [the chest] we would confirm the contents."

On May 3, the opportunity finally arrived. “We have just started a collaborative work relationship with [Quinnipiac] University through Gerald Conlogue, co-director of the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac, and the Mütter Institute at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia,” Grigonis says. “The relationship is still evolving, but [it encompasses] both educational and scholarly work spaces in the context of our historical medical collections.”

Last November, Quinnipiac’s anthropology and diagnostic-imaging students used x-rays and MRI equipment to examine a 150-to 200-year-old mummified baby from the Mütter Museum’s collections. Their goal, WTNH Connecticut News reports, was to learn more about the chemical composition and materials used to preserve the infant’s circulatory system.

This month, the school continued its research by x-raying several other preserved samples from the museum’s collections: two more mummified babies from the 19th century, and a large, unidentified dried animal penis. For fun, they also X-rayed the puzzling wooden box.

“The students took several imaging profiles—front, side, top—to get a clear sense of what was inside,” Grigonis says. Lo and behold, his initial hunch was correct: The chest contained a traveling bar, equipped with liquor bottles and small glasses inside.

Even though the discovery has nothing to do with medical history, “now we know what is inside,” Grigonis says. To watch the students solve the museum’s five-year puzzle, check out the video above, courtesy of WTNH.

[h/t WTNH Connecticut News]

Banner image courtesy of YouTube.