Thursday, February 01, 2007
The Nome Serum Run, February 2, 1925
Today in 1925, a team of tired, cold sled dogs and their equally exhausted musher arrived on Front Street in Nome, Alaska. The cargo the man and his dogs carried helped save possibly hundreds of lives. Theirs was the last leg of a relay race against time that is today recalled as the Great Race of Mercy or the Nome Serum Run
Nome, Alaska lies just below the Arctic Circle. In 1925, it was a town of about 1400 people, a mixture of American settlers and Inuit natives. During the winter, when daylight was scarce and temperatures could drop to almost 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, the only lifeline between Nome and outside world was the Iditarod Trail, a path 938 miles long that began far to the south in the port town of Seward. The trail crosses mountain ranges and drives through the vast and potentially deadly interior region of Alaska. By the 1920's, the first bush pilots were beginning to set up shop in Alaska, hoping to haul mail and other goods to remote towns and villages. This would come to pass in the next decade, but in 1925 airplanes were fragile things that did not take well to severe weather and cold. The only trustworthy way in and out of Nome was by sled.
The first sign of trouble in Nome actually came from a nearby village in the form of a young Inuit boy who was brought to the area's only doctor, Curtis Welch. Doctor Welch diagnosed the child as having tonsillitis, but he unexpectedly died the next day. Cases of what was thought to be tonsillitis cropped up in the town and surrounding area over the course of the next month, including four other children who died suddenly. The last of these children was 3-year old Bill Barnett; it was during his examination that Doctor Welch discovered not tonsillitis, but something much more sinister: diphtheria.
The town hospital had 8,000 units of expired diphtheria anti-toxin on hand, not enough to handle a full-blown epidemic. Welch and Nome's mayor called an emergency meeting in which they announced a quarantine and put out the call for one million units of the anti-toxin. This would be enough to treat hundreds of citizens. The mayor sent radio messages to the governor of Alaska and to the US Public Health Service in Washington, DC. He told them of the need for anti-toxin, stating that an epidemic of diphtheria was "inevitable." All of northwest Alaska, with a population of about 10,000, was threatened. Without the anti-toxin, the mortality rate for those infected would be near 100 percent.
At that time, a railway ran from the southern Alaska coast north to the small town of Nenana. 300,000 units of anti-toxin were brought via train to this northern terminus from Anchorage. It was not enough to stop an epidemic, but it was enough to allow the town to hold on until more units could be brought in from the United States. It was decided that a relay of dog sled teams would carry the precious vials the remaining way to Nome, a distance of 630 miles. The mayor of Nome was pulling for aircraft to make the run, but only three planes were operating in the territory that year, all of them open cockpit biplanes that were crated for the winter. The dogs and the mushers would have to pull through.
A relay was quickly organized. The best teams from the interior were tasked with the mission and all of them accepted the risks without hesitation. Some were in the middle of mail runs and were sent back to their stations. A series of handoffs to new teams would allow the anti-toxin to travel both day and night.
The trip began at 9PM on January 27 when "Wild Bill" Shannon accepted the package of anti-toxin at the train station in Nenana. It was 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. By the time he reached the town of Minto at 3AM the next morning, his nose was black from frostbite and he had lost four dogs. Nonetheless, he pushed on to Tolovana, a total of 52 miles.
Edgar Kallands took the next leg of the journey as the temperature fell to 56 degrees below zero. When he arrived at Manley Hot Springs at 4PM on the 28th, a local man had to pour hot water on his hands to unstick him from his sled's handlebar.
In the meantime, Norwegian Leonhard Seppala left Nome on January 27th and headed south for 170 miles into the teeth of a storm with a wind chill of 85 degrees below zero. The anti-toxin was still racing north, having changed hands several more times. It was with Henry Ivanoff and his team of dogs when they met Seppala heading the other way. Seppala, serum in hand, turned around and headed back north. He would travel the farthest of any of the teams, over 90 miles north after his 170 mile southbound run. He stopped at the village of Golovin, where he passed the serum to Charlie Olsen on February 1st.
The only mixup during the relay occurred when Gunnar Kaasen, having traveled through a storm so intense that he could not see his dog team in front of him, arrived at Point Safety only to find his relief asleep. Instead of waiting for the man to get his team together, Kaasen decided to make the run into Nome himself. He arrived in Nome at 5:30AM on February 2nd, 1925. Not a single vial of the anti-toxin was broken.
A second relay was run beginning on February 8th, using many of the same men who made the first trip. Unbeknownst to them, their first run had garnered front page attention in every major newspaper in the United States and even some in Europe. Some of the drivers and their teams, including Kaasen and Seppala, would tour the United States in the next few years and draw enormous crowds.
It is not known for sure how many people died as a result of diphtheria in and around Nome, Alaska that winter. While the official estimates range between 5 and 7 people, it is likely much higher due to the fact that the native Inuits did not always report deaths. Either way, the number is exponentially lower than it would have been if not for the bravery and perseverance of a few men and their dogs.