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The 1925 Serum Run To Nome

Years ago, diphtheria wiped out entire communities, sometimes killing all the children in a family. This is the story, in brief, of a famous event that galvanized people in the United States to begin to use diphtheria vaccine—which has virtually wiped out the once dreaded disease in this country.

In the winter of 1925, a lone physician and four nurses in Nome, Alaska faced a crisis too terrible to imagine—an outbreak of diphtheria that could kill most of the region's population of about 10,000 people.

Diphtheria is a highly contagious upper respiratory tract illness caused by the toxin-producing bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriea. The disease can be treated with an antitoxin or prevented by vaccines. However, before these medicines were available, diphtheria was commonly known as the “strangling angel of children.” Diphtheria causes the throat to become blocked with a thick, leathery coating that makes breathing very difficult. Without treatment, death by suffocation is very likely, especially for young children.

In December 1924, Nome doctor Curtis Welch watched as an outbreak started—with cases first thought to be simple sore throats or tonsillitis. In January 1925, when 2 children died of diphtheria, the impending crisis became clear. Dr. Welch ordered a quarantine, but diphtheria is so contagious that many people were likely already exposed and he knew more cases would appear.


“An epidemic of diphtheria is almost inevitable here STOP I am in urgent need of one million units of diphtheria antitoxin STOP Mail is only form of transportation STOP I have made application to Commissioner of Health of the Territories for antitoxin already STOP There are about 3000 white natives in the district STOP.”

Curtis Welch, MD
January 22, 1925
via the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System

December 24, 1924

A two-year old Inuit boy from the native village of Holy Cross, near the gold-mining town of Nome becomes the first person to display symptoms of diphtheria.  Dr. Curtis Welch, Nome's only doctor, misdiagnoses the boy's condition as tonsillitis (dismissing the possibility of it being diphtheria because no one else in the child's family or the village shows any signs of the extremely-contagious disease).  The child dies the next morning, but the child's mother refuses to allow an autopsy of his body.  As a result, an abnormally large number of cases of tonsillitis are diagnosed through December, including another fatality, 7-year old Margaret Solvey Eide, on December 28th.  Subsequently, two more Inuit children die.

January 20, 1925

Dr. Welch correctly diagnoses the diphtheria in three-year old Billy Barnett.  Fearing an already expired batch of 8,000 units (which Nome's 24-bed Maynard Columbus Hospital had in its possession for some time, and which was dated from 1918) would weaken Barnett, Welch does not administer diphtheria antitoxin to the boy.  The boy dies the next day (Welch had placed an order for replacement anti-toxin during the summer of 1924, from the health commissioner in Juneau, but the order did not arrive before the port of Nome closed up for the winter that year).

January 21, 1925

Seven-year old Bessie Stanley is diagnosed with late-stage diphtheria.  Dr. Welch risks injecting her with 6,000 units of the expired antitoxin, but she dies later that day. 

That evening, Welch contacts Nome Mayor George Maynard, and arranges for an emergency town council meeting.  During the meeting, he announces that he will need at least one million units to stave off what is becoming an epidemic.  The council immediately declares and implements a quarantine, and appoints Ms. Emily Morgan (one of the hospital's four nurses) as quarantine nurse.

January 22, 1925

Dr. Welch sends a telegram, via the U.S. Army's Signal Corps, to alert all major towns in Alaska, and Governor Scott C. Bone, in Juneau, of the public health risk.  A second telegram is sent to the U.S. Public Health Service in Washington D.C., explaining the desperate situation and the immediate need for antitoxin.

January 24, 1925

There are two more fatalities, Dora and Mary Stanley, sisters of Bessie (all  were daughters of Henry Stanley).  Welch and Morgan diagnose 20 more confirmed cases, and 50 more at risk, including children Mary _?_ and Vivian Blackjack. 

At a meeting of the board of health, superintendent Mark Summers (of the Hammon Consolidated Gold Fields...which owns several smaller gold mining companies, including the Pioneer Gold Mining Company of Jafet Lindeberg, John Brynteson, and Eric Lindblom...the "Three Lucky Swedes" of Nome's early days) proposes a relay of dogsleds, using two fast teams.  One would start at the town of Nenana, and the other at Nome, and they would meet in the town of Nulato.  Summers' employee, the now-famous Norwegian dogsled racer, and breeder of Siberian Huskies, Leonhard Seppala, was the ideal choice for the 630-mile round-trip trek from Nome to Nulato and back again.

At the meeting, Mayor Maynard proposes flying the antitoxin by bush plane.  These were World War I-vintage Standard J-1 bi-planes from the Fairbanks Airplane Corporation.  However, with open cockpits and water-cooled engines, they were deemed unreliable for flight in the winter, and lay dismantled.  Additionally, the two pilots who operated these bi-planes were down in the continental United States at the time, and unavailable.  An Alaska Delegate to the United States, Dan Sutherland, attempts to get authorization to use inexperienced pilot Roy Darling.  However, the board of health rejects the airplane option, and votes unanimously for the dogsled relay.  Leonhard Seppala is notified shortly after the meeting, and begins training his 20-dog team (including his famous lead dog Togo, and his half-brother Fritz.  Togo is already an advanced 12 years of age, and will lead the team an incredible distance in spite of that.  This is an amazing and substantial accomplishment for a dog of his age, even today).

January 26, 1925

Three hundred thousand units of diphtheria antitoxin are located at the Anchorage Railroad Hospital when the chief surgeon there, John Beeson, hears of the situation in Nome.  Following the orders of Governor Bone, he packs up the antitoxin and hands it over to conductor Frank Knight.  The serum is rushed up to Nenana by rail, and arrives on January 27th.  While not sufficient to defeat the epidemic, this amount could be enough to contain it until more antitoxin arrives (the U.S. Public Health Service had located 1.1 million units of antitoxin in various west coast hospitals.  These were to be shipped to Seattle, Washington, and then transported to Alaska.  The steamship Alameda would be the next ship out of Seattle, but it would not arrive there until the 31st of the month, and then would take another week to arrive in the port town of Seward, Alaska, near Anchorage).

January 27, 1925

With temperatures across the Alaskan interior reaching down to -50° Fahrenheit (-45° Celsius), due to a high-pressure system blowing in from the Arctic, and a second system burying the Alaskan panhandle, most forms of transportation were shut down.  Also, limited available daylight at this time of year prevented much flying.  Governor Scott Bone gives final authorization for the dogsled relay, and orders Edward Wetzler, U.S. Post Office inspector, to arrange a relay of the best drivers and dogs across the interior of the territory (which is a change from the original plan of only one driver heading out of Nenana to meet Seppala half-way).  The teams will travel by day and night until reaching Seppala at Nulato.  This decision outrages William Fendtriss "Wrong Font" Thompson, publisher of the Daily Fairbanks News-Miner and airplane advocate, who had helped line up a pilot and plane for the initial antitoxin to be flown to Nome.  He uses his newspaper to publish scathing editorials about the decision.  Seppala leaves Nome for Nulato with his team of twenty dogs.

The first driver, William "Wild Bill" Shannon, is handed the 20-pound (9 kilogram) package at the train station.  Despite the temperatures, Shannon leaves immediately with his team of nine dogs, led by five-year old Blackie.  The other eight dogs, however, are inexperienced.  Because of the dropping temperature, and bad conditions on the trail (ruts and pockmarks from horse-drawn carriages, which could easily tear up the paw pads of the dogs, and injure their ankles), Shannon diverts the team onto the smoother ice of the Tanana River, running alongside the sled himself to keep warm.  He arrives at the roadhouse at Minto at 3 A.M., with parts of his face black from severe frostbite.  The temperature is now -62° F (-52° C).  After warming the antitoxin by the fire and resting for four hours, he drops three dogs from the team (leaving them at the roadhouse) and continues on.  Two of the three dogs Shannon dropped at Minto die after he returns home with them after his part of the relay.  The third's fate is not recorded. 

The next driver in the relay, Edgar Kallands, had arrived at the Minto roadhouse the night before, but was sent back to Tolovana. 

January 28, 1925

Shannon arrives at the roadhouse in Tolovana at 11 A.M., he and his team in bad shape.  He hands over the antitoxin to Edgar Kallands who, after warming it again, heads into the forest near the roadhouse.  The temperature has risen to -56° F (-49° C), and Kallands makes the 31 miles to Manley Hot Springs without much reported incident, arriving at 4 P.M.  The owner of the Manley Hot Springs roadhouse, however, reports later that he had to pour hot water over Kalland's hands in order to get them free of the sled's handlebar.  Two more drivers, Dan Green and Johnny Folger, run the antitoxin along from Manley Hot Springs to Fish Lake, and then from Fish Lake to Tanana, through the remainder of the day and night (respectively).

January 29, 1925

The serum is handed along between six drivers and their teams during the course of the day, passing from Sam Joseph, to Titus Nikolai, to Dave Corning, to Harry Pitka, to Bill McCarty, and then to Edgar Nollner...encompassing a total distance of 170 miles (from Tanana through to Galena).  During the night, Edgar Nollner hands the package to his brother, George Nollner.  Two new cases of diphtheria are reported.  The crisis has become headline news in major cities across the United States, including in San Francisco, Cleveland, Washington D.C., and New York, and is talked about on the new and amateur radio sets which are becoming vogue.  The storm system which is nearly paralyzing the Alaska territory begins to hit and effect the continental United States, bringing record low temperatures (and many problems) to places as far away as New York, and freezing New York's Hudson River.

January 30, 1925

George Nollner continues on the trail, carrying the antitoxin along another 18 miles to Bishop Mountain, arriving at 3 A.M.  Musher Charlie Evans heads out into a patch of ice fog, created when the waters of the Koyukuk River break through the surface ice.  Forgetting to cover the vulnerable areas of the mixed breed leaders on his team, he sees them collapse from frostbite, and ends up having to lead the team along to Nulato himself.  By the time he arrives, at 10 A.M., both of his lead dogs are dead.  The next driver, Tommy Patsy, departs within a half hour of Evans' arrival. 

The number of cases in Nome reaches 27, and the antitoxin is depleted.  According to a reporter living in the town, "all hope is in the dogs and their heroic drivers...Nome appears to be a deserted city."  Another death in Nome is reported.  Nome Mayor George Maynard and Alaska delegate to the U.S., Dan Sutherland, renew their campaign for flying the remaining antitoxin by airplane, and several proposals are suggested.  They are again unanimously rejected by experienced bush pilots, the Navy, and Governor Bone himself (which results in more scathing newspaper articles).  In response, Bone decides to step up the speed of the relay by authorizing the addition of more drivers to the latter half of the relay (Nulato to Nome).  Seppala is still scheduled to cover the most dangerous leg of the route (the shortcut across the frozen pack ice of Norton Sound), and the Hammon board of health superintendent, Mark Summers, arranges for more drivers...including Seppala's colleague and protege, young Norwegian driver (and also Hammon employee) Gunnar Kaasen.

Patsy runs 36 miles to the town of Kaltag, handing the antitoxin along to driver "Jackscrew," who carries it with his team over the Kaltag Portage to "Old Woman Shelter" on the 31st.

January 31, 1925

After receiving the antitoxin from Jackscrew early in the morning, driver Victor Anagick runs his team 34 miles to the shore town of Unalakleet, handing it then to driver Myles Gonangnan who's team carries it another 40 miles, through now even lower temperatures (-70° F/-57° C), driving snow, and now winds which have picked up to gale force, to the roadhouse at Shaktoolik.  Seppala is not there, but he finds driver Henry Ivanoff waiting just in case.  Ivanoff warms the antitoxin for a bit, and then heads out into the storm, intending (and hoping) to spot Seppala along the established (but now practically invisible) trail.  The winds have driven the temperature down now to a bone-chilling and teeth-shattering -85° F (-65° C).  During the run, his team stumbles upon a lone reindeer, and ends up getting itself hopelessly tangled in the confusion which follows.  Cursing and doing his best to untangle his dogs (and now at a total standstill), he luckily spots Seppala's large team passing him nearby.  He turns and shouts "The serum!  The serum!  I have it here!"  Seppala stops his team and the transfer is made.  Turning back around, Seppala heads again for the dangerous ice of Norton Sound.

Starting out at Ungalik after dark, Seppala's lead dog, the famous Togo, leads the team straight through the dark, across the very dangerous ice of Norton Sound.  The team arrives at the roadhouse at Isaac's Point, on the far side of the route over the sound, at 8 P.M.  In one day, Seppala's team has traveled 84 miles (135 kilometers), averaging 8 miles per hour (13 kilometers per hour). 

February 1, 1925

After resting, the team set out again at 2 A.M., into the full raging power of the storm.  During the night, the wind increased to at least 65 mph (105 kph).  Seppala had the team travel back down onto the pack ice of the sound, following the shoreline.  It was risky as the ice was starting to break up.  They returned to shore in order to cross over Little McKinley Mountain, a climb of 5,000 feet (1,500 meters).  After descending to the next roadhouse at Golovin, Seppala passes the antitoxin to driver Charlie 3 A.M.  The number of cases of diphtheria, in Nome, are now at 28 (the antitoxin en route is enough to treat only 30).  The winds by now are raging at 80 mph (129 kph), and Welch orders a stop to the relay until the storm passes, reasoning that a delay of the antitoxin's arrival is better than the risk of losing it entirely.  Messages are left at Solomon and Port Safety before the lines go dead.

Olson is blown off the trail, and suffers severe frostbite on his hands while putting blankets on his dogs.  The wind chill is now -70° F (-57° C).  He arrives at Bluff at 7 P.M. in poor shape.  The next driver, Gunnar Kaasen, decides to wait until 10 P.M. for the storm to break.  However, with it only getting worse, and fearing that the trail would soon be completely obscured by snow drifts, he risks heading out into a strong headwind, with his lead dog, Balto, up in front.  Kaasen travels through the night...through drifts and river overflow over 600-foot (180-meter) Topkok Mountain.  Balto leads the team through visibility so poor that Kaasen could not always see the dogs harnessed closest to the sled.  He was two miles past the town of Solomon, where he was supposed to pass the antitoxin on, before he realized it.  Making a decision which will trouble him later, he decides to go on.  The winds from this point onward are so bad, that the sled flips over, dumping the antitoxin into a deep snow drift in the dark.  Stopping the team, Kaasen rights the sled and desperately begins digging in search of the antitoxin.  Removing his gloves (and exposing his bare hands to the icy wind and snow), in order to better feel around for the package, he eventually manages to stumble upon it, but acquires frostbite on his hands in the process.  Getting the team back up, he presses onward.

February 2, 1925

Kaasen arrives at Point Safety ahead of schedule, at 3 A.M.  Ed Rohn, the next driver in the relay, believing that Kaasen and the relay were halted at Solomon, is asleep, which is how Kaasen finds him.  The weather has improved a little, so Kaasen makes a second decision which will trouble him down through the years...he does not wake Rohn (figuring it would take time to get Rohn ready, and his team harnessed), but again decides to press on after a short rest (and a chance to warm the antitoxin).  Kaasen goes back out to his team and drives them on the last 25 miles (40 kilometers) to Nome, arriving on Front Street in the town at 5:30 A.M., and pulling up to the Merchants & Miners Bank.  He stumbles to the front of the team, collapses before a few early-risen witnesses, who report that his only words (about Balto) are "damn fine dog."




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