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Fri Feb 2, 2024, 09:52 AM Feb 2024

On This Day: Serum dog sled run reaches Nome, helps spur inoculations for diptheria - Feb. 2, 1925

Last edited Fri Feb 2, 2024, 11:27 AM - Edit history (1)

(edited from Wikipedia)
[Musher Gunnar] Kaasen pressed on with the remaining 25 miles to Nome, reaching Front Street at 5:30 am [on February 2, 1925]. Not a single ampule was broken, and the antitoxin was thawed and ready by noon.

1925 Serum Run to Nome

The 1925 serum run to Nome, also known as the Great Race of Mercy and The Serum Run, was a transport of diphtheria antitoxin by dog sled relay across the U.S. territory of Alaska by 20 mushers and about 150 sled dogs across 674 miles in 5 and a half days, saving the small town of Nome and the surrounding communities from a developing epidemic of diphtheria.

Both the mushers and their dogs were portrayed as heroes in the newly popular medium of radio and received headline coverage in newspapers across the United States.

Balto, the lead sled dog on the final stretch into Nome, became the most famous canine celebrity of the era after Rin Tin Tin, and his statue is a popular tourist attraction in both New York City's Central Park and downtown Anchorage, Alaska. But it was Togo's team which covered much of the most dangerous parts of the route and ran the farthest.

The publicity also helped spur an inoculation campaign in the U.S. which dramatically reduced the threat of the disease.

Location and geography

Nome, Alaska, lies approximately two degrees south of the Arctic Circle, and while greatly diminished from its peak of 20,000 inhabitants during the gold rush at the turn of the 20th century, it was still the largest town in northern Alaska in 1925, with 455 Alaska Natives and 975 settlers of European descent.

In Alaska and other subarctic regions, the primary source of mail and needed supplies in 1925 was the dog sled; however, within a decade, bush flying would become the dominant method of transportation during the winter months.

Outbreak and call for help

In the winter of 1924–1925, Curtis Welch was the only doctor in Nome. He and four nurses, working at the small Maynard Columbus Hospital, served the town and the surrounding area. After discovering the hospital's entire batch of diphtheria antitoxin had expired, Welch placed an order for more. However, the replacement shipment did not arrive before the port was closed by ice for the winter, and more could not be shipped in to Nome until spring.

By mid-January 1925, Welch officially diagnosed the first case of diphtheria in a three-year-old boy who died only two weeks after first becoming ill. The following day, when a seven-year-old girl presented the same tell-tale symptoms of diphtheria, Welch attempted to administer some of the expired antitoxin to see if it might still have any effect, but the girl died a few hours later.  Realizing that an epidemic was imminent, Welch called Nome's mayor, George Maynard, that same evening to arrange an emergency town council meeting. The council immediately implemented a quarantine. The following day, on January 22, 1925, Welch sent radio telegrams to all other major towns in Alaska alerting them of the public health risk. He also requested assistance from the U.S. Public Health Service in Washington, D.C.

Without antitoxin, it was expected that in the surrounding region's population of around 10,000 people, the mortality rate could be close to 100 percent. A previous influenza pandemic had hit the area in 1918, causing fatalities in about 50 percent of the native population of Nome and 8% of the native population of Alaska. More than 1,000 people died in northwest Alaska, and approximately 2,000 across the state. The majority were Alaska Natives who did not have any resistance to either disease.

Problem solving

At the January 24 meeting of the board of health, superintendent Mark Summers proposed a dogsled relay using two fast teams. One would start at Nenana, Alaska, the closest railhead on the Alaska Railroad, and the other at Nome, and they would meet roughly halfway in the town of Nulato.

The trip from Nulato to Nome normally took 30 days. Curtis Welch estimated that the serum would last only six days under the brutal conditions of the trail. Summers's employee, the Norwegian sled dog trainer and musher Leonhard Seppala, was chosen for the 630-mile round trip from Nome to Nulato and back. He had previously made the run in a record-breaking four days, won the All-Alaska Sweepstakes three times, and had become famous for his athletic ability and rapport with his Siberian huskies. His lead dog, the 12-year-old Togo, was equally famous for his leadership, intelligence, and ability to sense danger.

In 1925, planes were a relatively new technology, and Alaska's harsh winter weather made them unreliable. Travel by sea was hazardous, and across the Interior, most forms of transportation shut down. Furthermore there were limited hours of daylight to fly due to the polar night.

On January 26, 300,000 forgotten units of the antitoxin were located in a hospital in Anchorage. The supply was wrapped in glass vials, then padded quilts, and finally a metallic cylinder weighing a little over 20 pounds. At Governor Scott Bone's order, it was immediately shipped to Nenana and arrived the next day. While not sufficient to defeat the epidemic, the 300,000 units could slow the spread of the disease until the larger shipment arrived.


The mail carriers held a revered position in the territory, and were the best dog mushers in Alaska. The majority of relay drivers across the Interior were native Athabaskans, direct descendants of the original dog mushers.

The first musher in the relay was "Wild Bill" Shannon, who was handed the 20 pounds package at the train station in Nenana on January 27 at 9:00 pm AKST by night. Despite a temperature of ?50 °F, Shannon left immediately with his team of 9 inexperienced dogs, led by Blackie. The temperature began to drop, and the team was forced onto the colder ice of the river because the trail had been destroyed by horses.

Despite jogging alongside the sled to keep warm, Shannon developed hypothermia. He reached Minto at 3 am, with parts of his face black from frostbite. The temperature was ?62 °F. After warming the serum by the fire and resting for four hours, Shannon dropped three dogs and left with the remaining 8. The three dogs died shortly after Shannon returned for them, and a fourth may have died as well.

Arrival in Minto

Half-Athabaskan Edgar Kalland arrived in Minto the night before, and was sent back to Tolovana, traveling 70 mi the day before the relay. Shannon and his team arrived in bad condition at 11 am, and handed over the serum. After warming the serum in the roadhouse, Kalland headed into the forest. The temperature had fallen to ?56 °F , causing Kalland's hands to freeze to the sled's handlebar, requiring the owner of the Manley Hot Springs roadhouse to pour boiling water on the birch wood bar for thawing.

No new cases of diphtheria were diagnosed on January 28, but two new cases were diagnosed on January 29. The quarantine had been obeyed, but lack of diagnostic tools and the contagiousness of the strain rendered it ineffective. More units of serum were discovered around Juneau the same day. While no count exists, the estimate based on weight is roughly 125,000 units, enough to treat 4 to 6 patients. The crisis had become headline news in newspapers, including in San Francisco, Cleveland, Washington D.C., and New York, and spread to the radio sets which were just becoming common. The storm system from Alaska hit the contiguous United States, bringing record lows to New York, and freezing the Hudson River.

A fifth death occurred on January 30. Maynard and Alaskan House Delegate Daniel Sutherland renewed their campaign for flying the remaining serum by plane. Different proposals included flying a large aircraft 2,000 miles from Seattle to Nome, carrying a plane to the edge of the pack ice via Navy ship and launching it, and the original plan of flying the serum from Fairbanks. Despite receiving headline coverage across the country and support from Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen, the plans were rejected by experienced pilots, the Navy, and Governor Bone. As publisher and editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner newspaper, William Fentress Thompson harshly criticized government officials for inaction and funded a private fleet of planes.

In response, Governor Bone decided to speed up the relay, authorizing additional drivers for Seppala's leg of the relay, so they could travel without rest. Seppala was still scheduled to cover the most dangerous leg, the shortcut across Norton Sound, but the telephone and telegraph systems bypassed the small villages he was passing through, and there was no way to tell him to wait at Shaktoolik. The plan relied on the driver from the north catching Seppala on the trail. Summers arranged for drivers along the last leg, including Seppala's colleague Gunnar Kaasen.

From Manley Hot Springs, the serum passed through largely Athabascan hands before George Nollner delivered it to Charlie Evans at Bishop Mountain on January 30 at 3 am. The temperature had warmed slightly, but at ?62 °F, was dropping again. Evans relied on his lead dogs when he passed through ice fog where the Koyukuk River, flowing into the Yukon, had broken through and surged over the ice, but forgot to protect the groins of his two short-haired mixed breed lead dogs with rabbit skins. Both dogs collapsed with frostbite, with Evans having to take their place himself pulling the sled. He arrived at 10 am; both dogs were dead. Tommy Patsy departed within half an hour.

The transport of the serum then parted ways with the Yukon River as the river turned south and the trail crossed the Kaltag Portage west to the coast. Athabascan Jack Nicolai, aka "Jackscrew", took it up the first half of the portage to Old Woman Cabin and Victor Anagick of the Inupiat village Unalakleet, having driven up to meet him there, took it down the second half, handing it to his fellow villager Myles Gonangnan on the shores of Norton Sound in Unalakleet on January 31 at 5 am. Gonangnan saw the signs of a storm brewing, and decided not to take the shortcut across the dangerous ice of the Sound. He departed at 5:30 am, and as he crossed the hills, "the eddies of drifting, swirling snow passing between the dog's legs and under the bellies made them appear to be fording a fast running river." The whiteout conditions cleared as he reached the shore, and the gale-force winds drove the wind chill to ?70 °F . At 3 pm, he arrived at Shaktoolik. Seppala was not there, but Henry Ivanoff was waiting just in case.

On January 30, the number of cases in Nome had reached 27 and the antitoxin was depleted. According to a reporter living in Nome, "All hope is in the dogs and their heroic drivers ... Nome appears to be a deserted city."  With the report of Gonangnan's progress on January 31, Welch believed the serum would arrive there in February.

Connection on Norton Sound

Leonhard Seppala and his dog sled team, with his lead dog Togo, travelled 91 miles from Nome from January 27 to January 31 into the oncoming storm. They took the shortcut across the Norton Sound, and headed toward Shaktoolik. The temperature in Nome was a relatively warm ?20 °F, but in Shaktoolik, the temperature was estimated at ?30 °F, and the gale force winds causing a wind chill of ?85 °F (?65 °C).

Henry Ivanoff's team ran into a reindeer and got tangled up just outside Shaktoolik. Seppala still believed he had more than 100 mi to the original relay point in Nulato to go and had raced to get off the Norton Sound before the storm hit. He was passing the team when Ivanoff shouted, "The serum! The serum! I have it here!"

Seppala turned around with the serum but it was dark by the time he got to Ungalik. But with the news of the worsening epidemic Ivanoff had shared, he decided not to stop and once again set out to brave the storm across the 20 miles of exposed open ice of the Norton Sound. The temperature was estimated at ?30 °F, but the wind chill with the gale force winds was ?85 °F . Togo led the team in a straight line through the dark, and they arrived at the roadhouse in Isaac's Point on the other side at 8 pm. In one day, they had travelled 84 mi, averaging 8 mph. The team rested, and departed at 2 am into the full power of the storm.

During the night, the temperature dropped to ?40 °F, and the wind increased to storm force. While they slept, it had blown out to sea all the ice Seppala had just crossed. There was still some ice close to shore for the next part of their journey along the coast, but it was rough and starting to break up too. They stuck close to shore, and Togo picked his way carefully until they were back on solid ground. Next they had to cross Little McKinley Mountain, another of the toughest parts of the trail because of the many up-and-down ridges. The total elevation climbed in that section of over 8 miles is 5,000 feet. After descending to the next roadhouse in Golovin, Seppala passed the serum to Charlie Olsen on February 1 at 3 pm.

On February 1, the number of cases in Nome rose to 28. The serum en route was sufficient to treat 30 people. With the powerful blizzard raging and winds of 80 mph, Welch ordered a stop to the relay until the storm passed, reasoning that a delay was better than the risk of losing it all. Messages were left at Solomon and Point Safety before the lines went dead.

Olsen was blown off the trail, and suffered severe frostbite in his hands while putting blankets on his dogs. The wind chill was ?70 °F. He arrived at Bluff on February 1 at 7 pm in poor condition. Gunnar Kaasen waited until 10 pm for the storm to break, but it only got worse and the drifts would soon block the trail, so he departed into a headwind.

Kaasen traveled through the night, through drifts, and river overflow over the 600-foot Topkok Mountain. Balto led the team through visibility so poor that Kaasen could not always see the dogs harnessed closest to the sled. He was two miles past Solomon before he realized it, and kept going. The winds after Solomon were so severe that his sled flipped over and he almost lost the cylinder containing the serum when it fell off and became buried in the snow. He also suffered frostbite when he had to use his bare hands to feel for the cylinder.

Kaasen reached Point Safety ahead of schedule on February 2, at 3 am. Ed Rohn believed that Kaasen and the relay had halted at Solomon, so he was sleeping. Since the weather was improving, it would take time to prepare Rohn's team, and Balto and the other dogs were moving well, Kaasen pressed on with the remaining 25 miles to Nome, reaching Front Street at 5:30 am. Not a single ampule was broken, and the antitoxin was thawed and ready by noon.

Together, the teams covered the 674 miles in 127 and a half hours, which was considered a world record, done in extreme subzero temperatures in near-blizzard conditions and hurricane-force winds. A number of dogs died during the trip.

Air mail

The serum race helped spur the Kelly Act, which was signed into law on February 2. The bill allowed private aviation companies to bid on mail delivery contracts. Technology improved and, within a decade, air mail routes were established in Alaska. The last mail delivery by private dog sled under contract took place in 1938, and the last U.S. Post Office dog sled route closed in 1963. Dog sledding remained popular in the rural interior but became nearly extinct when snowmobiles spread in the 1960s. Mushing was revitalized as a recreational sport in the 1970s with the immense popularity of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.


While the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which runs more than 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome, is actually based on the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, it has many traditions that commemorate the race to deliver the serum to Nome.

Popular media

A detailed recounting of the people and events involved in the serum run, including the story of the native mushers and the local nurses who attended to the sick and dying, is included in the 2003 book, The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic, by Gay and Laney Salisbury. In 2013, a documentary titled Icebound – The Greatest Dog Story Ever Told, focused on the aftermath of the events. The Great Alaskan Race, a 2019 film, produced by Rebel Road Entertainment, is based on the serum run. Togo, produced by Walt Disney Pictures, debuted on December 20, 2019, on Disney+.


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On This Day: Serum dog sled run reaches Nome, helps spur inoculations for diptheria - Feb. 2, 1925 (Original Post) jgo Feb 2024 OP
Terrific story. Everybody please read! planetc Feb 2024 #1

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