The 1925 Serum Run To Nome: The Incredible Story of How a Remote Alaskan Town Was Saved From an Epidemic

Sep 25, 2020 0 comments

In the winter of 1925, a small Alaskan town called Nome, situated on the edge of the Arctic circle, found itself on the brink of an unimaginable crisis. An outbreak of diphtheria threatened to wipe out the entire community of 1,400. Nome’s lone physician, Curtis Welch, feared that if the infection spread, it could put at risk the surrounding communities totaling more than 10,000 people. A large number of these were natives who had no resistance to the disease.

To make matter worse, Dr. Welch’s stock of diphtheria toxin had expired several months earlier. Welch had already place an order, but the shipment was delayed and now the winter had set in and closed the port due to ice. This meant that Dr. Welch would have to wait until spring when the ice thawed.

Huskies pulling a dog sled

Huskies pulling a dog sled. Photo: Angyalosi Beata/Shutterstock.com

The outbreak began in December 1924, when Welch saw what he thought were cases of tonsillitis. But when the number of cases grew and children began to drop dead, he feared the worst.

Diphtheria is a highly contagious disease caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae. The bacteria attacks the respiratory system, destroying healthy tissues there. The dead tissues build up in the throat and nose to form a thick leathery coating that makes breathing difficult. If not treated, a patient can die of asphyxiation. Diphtheria is usually fatal among children. During the 1920s, between one hundred to two hundred thousand people were infected each year in the United States, with fifteen thousand deaths, most of which were children.

Fortunately, a cure was available—an antitoxin, made from the serum of immunized animals containing antibodies that could neutralize the toxin produced by the bacteria. The German doctor, Emil von Behring, who discovered the antitoxin in the late 19th century, won the first Nobel Prize in medicine in 1901 for his work. But Welch had run out of this life-saving medicine. The serum would have to be brought over from mainland US, more than a thousand miles away.

nome alaska

The town of Nome in 1916.

Welch dispatched an urgent telegram for help to the U.S. Public Health Service in Washington, asking for 1 million units of the antitoxin.

The board of health organized an emergency meeting, and discussed possible means of delivering the antitoxin. Flying an aircraft was ruled out, because flights during winter was risky. The US Post Office tried to fly some at −20 °C, but the longest they could make was only 260 miles (420 km), and several of them crash landed. Eventually, it was decided that a shipment of 1.1 million units of serum would be sent from Seattle to Seward by sea, a journey that would take 6 to 7 days. From Seward the vials would be sent by rail to Nenana and finally to Nome, a distance of 674 miles (1,085 km), by dogsled.

1925 Serum Run To Nome

By a happy chance, the Anchorage Railroad Hospital discovered 300,000 units in their stock. This supply was carefully packed into a metallic cylinder and rushed to Nenana. These 300,000 units would hold the epidemic at bay until the larger shipment arrived.

The US Post Office recruited their best sled-dog teams, a total of twenty, and positioned them along the route. The entire route ordinarily took the postal service 25 days to cover, but Dr. Welch couldn’t wait that long, because the serum lasted only six days. The dogs would have to complete the journey in less than a quarter of the normal time.

The 20-pound package of serum arrived at Nenana on the night of January 27, 1925. That same night, the first musher William "Wild Bill" Shannon secured the precious cargo onto his sled, and left with his team of eleven dogs. The winter was unusually harsh that year, with temperatures dropping to nearly −50 °C. Shannon led his dogs over the frozen river, while he himself ran alongside to keep his body warm. He still developed hypothermia and by the time he had completed his 52-mile leg, parts of his face was black from frostbite. He lost three dogs on the way.

nome alaska

A modern view of Nome . Photo: Joseph/Flickr

Edgar Kalland received the package from Shannon in Tolovana, and immediately headed into the forest. He made the 31 miles to Manley Hot Springs without much incident, except that his hands had frozen solid over the sled's handlebar and had to be freed by pouring hot water. From Manley Hot Springs the serum passed through several hands before it reached Bishop Mountain. The next musher Edgar Nollner headed into the icy fog, but in his haste he forgot to cover the vulnerable areas of his two lead dogs. Both dogs collapsed of frostbite, forcing Noller to take their place pulling the sled himself. By the time he arrived, both of his lead dogs were dead. 

The next driver, Tommy Patsy, ran 36 miles to the town of Kaltag, and handed the antitoxin to driver Jack Nicolai, who carried it with his team over the Kaltag Portage to the shores of Norton Sound, at Unalakleet. The date was January 31. Back in Nome, the number of cases had risen to 27. A local newspaper reported: “all hope is in the dogs and their heroic drivers...Nome appears to be a deserted city.”


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Meanwhile seasoned musher Leonhard Seppala set out from Nome and travelled 170 miles (274km) in three days to meet the incoming delivery. Seppala and his dog Togo was chosen for the most dangerous leg of the journey—a shortcut across Norton Sound, which could save a full day of travel. The ice on Norton Sound was in constant motion due to currents from the sea and the incessant wind. It ranged from rough hills of smashed-together ice to slippery glare polished by the wind, where it was difficult for the dogs to get a foothold. Small cracks in the ice could suddenly widen, and driver and team could be plunged into the freezing water. Windchill drove the temperature down to −85 °F (−65 °C). Seppala was the most qualified of the relay mushers to attempt this shortcut.

Leonhard Seppala with dogs

Leonhard Seppala with his dogs. Photo: Carrie McLain Museum / AlaskaStock

When Seppala picked the serum from Henry Ivanoff, night had begun to fall and a powerful storm was moving towards the Gulf of Alaska. In the dark and high winds, it was suicidal to cross Norton Sound, but Seppala decided to press on. Seppala could hardly see but his lead dog Togo navigated the treacherous breaking ice, and the team made it safely to the coastline. Seppala’s dogs then made a grueling 8-mile-climb over the summit of Little McKinley to arrive at Golovin, where Seppala passed the serum to Charlie Olsen on February 1. Seppala’s sleep deprived dogs had raced 260 miles (420 km) in 4.5 days.

Charlie Olson ran the next 25 miles to hand off the serum to Gunnar Kaasen for the scheduled second-to-last leg of the relay. Meanwhile, the blizzard had worsened and Kaasen, fearing that the trail would soon be completely obscured by snow drifts, headed onto the strong headwind with his lead dog, Balto, up in front. Kaasen traveled through the night and shot past the town of Solomon, where he was supposed to pass the antitoxin on. Kaasen realized his mistake, but decided to go on. Suddenly, a massive gust of wind flipped his sled over and launched the antidote into the snow where it got buried. Kassen had to use his bare hands to dig through the snow so that he could feel the cylinder, acquiring frostbite on his hands in the process.

Gunnar Kaasen and balto

Gunnar Kaasen and Balto. Photo: Brown Brothers/Wikimedia Commons

Kaasen reached Point Safety ahead of schedule on February 2, at 3 am. The next musher, Ed Rohn believing that Kaasen and the relay was halted at Solomon, was sleeping. Kaasen decided not to wake Rohn because it would take time to prepare Rohn's team, and Balto and the other dogs were moving well. So Kaasen pressed on the remaining 25 miles (40 km) to Nome, reaching the town at 5:30 am. Not a single ampule was broken, and the antitoxin was thawed and readied by noon.

Three weeks after injecting the residents of Nome, cases began to subside. By then, the remaining batch of 1 million units also arrived, by sled again. Many of the original drivers and dogs took part in the second run, facing the same hardships.

All the mushers and their dogs received letters of commendation from President Calvin Coolidge. Leonhard Seppala and Gunnar Kaasen became celebrities, so did their dogs Togo and Balto. A statue of Balto was erected in New York City's Central Park in 1925, ten months after Balto's arrival in Nome. Balto himself was present for the monument's unveiling. Meanwhile, Seppala, Togo, and a team of dogs went on a tour from Seattle to California, and then across the Midwest to New England, consistently drawing huge crowds.

The statue of Balto

The statue of Balto in New York City's Central Park. Photo: Pete/Flickr

Togo and Balto were both euthanized, and their bodies are now mounted and on display at different locations. Balto is at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and Togo is on display at the Iditarod museum in Wasilla, Alaska.

To commemorate the heroic serum run, each year the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is organized, which runs more than 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome through blizzards, sub-zero temperatures and gale-force winds. The race was originally known as the Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race in honor of Leonhard Seppala, and the first race was held in 1967. The name of the race was changed to the current, and the event was formalized in 1972.

References:
# http://www.alaskaweb.org/disease/1925serumrun.htm
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1925_serum_run_to_Nome

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