1925 Serum Run to Nome: The Incredible Story of How the Remote Alaskan Town was Rescued from an Epidemic

 In the winter of 1925, a small Alaskan city called Noam, located 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 threaten more than 10,000 people in surrounding communities. A large number of these were natives, who had no resistance to the disease.

To make matters worse, Drs. Welch's stock of diphtheria toxin had expired several months earlier. Welch had already placed an order, but the shipment was delayed and now the port was closed due to snow in the winter. This meant that Drs. Welch will have to wait until the ice melts.

Huskies pulling dog sleds.

Its outbreak began in December 1924, when Welch noticed what he thought were cases of tonsillitis. But when the number of cases increased and children started leaving the dead, they feared the most.

Diphtheria is a very contagious disease caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheria. Bacteria attack the respiratory system, destroying healthy tissues there. Dead tissue forms a thick leather coating in the throat and nose that makes it difficult to breathe. If left untreated, a patient may die asphyxia. Diphtheria is usually fatal in children. During 1920, one hundred to two hundred thousand people were infected every year in the United States, with fifteen thousand deaths, most of them children.

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

The town of Nome in 1916.

Welch sent an urgent telegram to the US Public Health Service in Washington asking for help, asking for 1 million units of antioxidants.

The Board of Health held an emergency meeting, and discussed possible means of delivering antitoxin. An aircraft was refused to fly, because flights during the winter were risky. The US Post Office tried to fly some at Post20 ° C, but the longest they could travel was only 260 miles (420 km), and many of them crashed. Eventually, it was decided that shipments of 1.1 million units of serum would be shipped from Seattle to Seward, a journey that would take 6 to 7 days. From Seward the vials will be sent by rail to Nana and finally to Nem, which is 674 miles (1,085 km) by dogs.

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.

A modern view of Nome.

Edgar Cland received the package from Shannon in Tolovana, and immediately went into the woods. He made the Manley Hot Springs 31 miles without incident, except that his hands were frozen above the handlebar of the sled and had to be freed by pouring hot water. From Manali Hot Springs, Serum passed through several hands before reaching the Bishop Mountains. The next mouser Edgar Nolner went into the icy fog, but hastily forgot to cover the vulnerable areas of his two leading dogs. Both dogs collapsed with frostbite, forcing Noller to pull the sled. By the time he arrived, both of his major dogs were dead.

The next driver, Tommy Patsy, departed the city of Kalatag 36 miles, and handed over the antitoxin to driver Jack Nikolai, who accompanied his team to Kalatag Portage, on the banks of Norton Sound, on Unalacat. The date was 31 January. Back in Nome, the number of cases was reduced to 27. A local newspaper reported: "All hope is in the dogs and their heroic drivers ... Nome seems to be a deserted city."

Meanwhile veteran mushroom Leonhard Sepala flew out of Nome and traveled 170 miles (274 km) in three days to complete the ensuing delivery. Sippala and his dog Togo were chosen for the most dangerous leg of the trip - a shortcut on Norton Sound, which could save a whole day of travel. Snow on Norton Sound was in constant motion due to the ocean and constant wind currents. It was surrounded by dusty hills with slippery glaciers of snow, where winds made it difficult for dogs to walk. Small cracks in the ice can suddenly widen, and the crew and crew can be immersed in icy water. Windchill brought the temperature down to ill85 ° F (C65 ° C). Seppala was most worthy of Riley Mushroom to try this shortcut.

Leonhard Seppala with his dogs.

When Seppala picked up the serum from Henry Ivanoff, night was falling and a powerful storm was moving toward the Gulf of Alaska. In dark and strong winds, crossing Norton Sound was suicidal, but Seppala decided to suppress. Seppala could hardly see but his head dog Togo removed the treacherous crumbling snow, and the team safely made it to the beach. Sepala's dogs climbed 8 miles to the summit of Little Mackinley to reach Golovin, where Sepala passed the serum to Charlie Olsen on 4 February. Sleeping dogs from Sepala ran 260 miles (420 km) in 4.5 days.

Charlie Olson ran the next 25 miles to hand the serum to Gunnar Kasen for Riley's scheduled second-to-last leg. Meanwhile, the blizzard had deteriorated and Kassen feared that the trail would soon be completely obscured by the drift of snow, leading to a strong headwind of his lead dog Balto, in front. Kasen traveled at night and shot in the city of Solomon, where he was about to undergo antitoxin. Kasen realizes his mistake, but decides to leave. Suddenly, a big gust of wind slipped on their sled and launched the antidote into the snow, where it was buried. Kasen had to use his bare hands to dig through the ice so that he could feel the cylinder, in the process getting frostbite on his hands.

Gunnar Kasen and Balto.

Kasen reached Point Safety ahead of schedule on February 2 at 3 am. The next masher, Ed Rohan, assumes that Cassen and Riley are staying in Solomon, sleeping. Kasen decided not to wake up Rohan as it would take time to prepare Rohan's team, and Balto and the other dogs were progressing well. Kasen therefore pressed the remaining 25 miles (40 km) to Nome, which reached the city at 5:30 in the morning. Not a single ampule was broken, and by noon the antitoxin was melted and read.

Three weeks after Nome residents were injected, the cases began to decrease. By then, the remaining batch of 1 million units had also arrived, again by sled. Facing the same hardships, many of the original drivers and dogs participated in the second part.

All of Mull and his dogs received letters of appreciation from President Calvin Coolidge. Leonhard Sepala and Gunnar Kasen became celebrities, then their dogs Togo and Balto. A statue of Balto was placed in New York City's Central Park in 1925, ten months after Balto's arrival at Nom. Balto himself was present for the memorial unveiling. Meanwhile, Seppala, Togo and a team of dogs went on a tour from Seattle to California, and then continued to draw huge crowds, from the Midwest to New England.

Balto statue in New York City's Central Park.

Both Togo and Balto were wonderful, and their bodies are now engaged in different places. Balto is in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and is on display at the Iditrod Museum in Togo, Wasilla, Alaska.

To run the Veer Serum each year, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is organized, running more than 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome through blizzard, sub-zero temperatures and thunder-force winds. The race was originally known as the Iditrod Trail Seppala Memorial Race in honor of Leonhard Seppala, and the first race was held in 1967. The race was renamed to the present, and the event was formalized in 1972.

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