In 1897, Edward Dunham placed a vial of human bacterial spores into a time capsule for future scientists.
Working as a bacteriologist at Bellevue Hospital Medical College in Manhattan, he wrote in a note that "…future generations will let us know how long these spores last," according to a CBS News radio report. Last week, 114 years after Dunham left the note, authorities demolished the building that rested on top of the time capsule, causing the historical artifacts to resurface.
The vial of bacterial spores are thought to belong to Clostridium perfringen, a type of intestinal bacteria common to humans and non-human animals. Today, the bacteria are relatively well tolerated, but in Dunham's time, they were far more harmful.
The hospital also found papers from the time, medical student records as well as a New York Sun newspaper in the time capsule.
Dunham, who may have dabbled in chemistry, too, presented an intriguing question: How long can a patient's bacteria last?
Martin Blaser, a professor of internal medicine at New York University, plans on examining the bacteria to see if the cells can be revived after all these years. Because spore-forming bacteria usually have dormant states, they are better suited to withstand long periods of inactivity.
If the sample allows, it would be a scientific goldmine to sequence the bacteria's DNA and learn how the strain differs from present-day versions.
The bacteria might also provide a glimpse into human bacteria before the widespread use of antibiotics in the 1940s.
Despite Dunham's unique contribution to the time capsule, others have placed equally strange objects in these ceremonial vaults. One Japanese time capsule sought to capture life in 1970 by stowing away a variety of items, including a silk condom, origami instruction book and false teeth. Another capsule destined to be open in 6,000 years at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Ga., featured books, dentures, plant seeds and paintings for future inhabitants to reference.
The world's largest time capsule in Nebraska stems from a man's wishes to show his future relatives what life was like. He supposedly placed books, bikini bottoms and even a cheap car in his capsule.
On a more serious note, the Westinghouse time capsules in New York contain scientific papers as well as advice from Albert Einstein warning against letting economic and intellectual inequalities take hold in America.
Photo by CDC/Don Stalons/Wikimedia Commons