The Serum Run: Sled Dogs Save the Day-Part 1
In 1925, the population of Nome, Alaska was just two thousand. Most of the miners, prospectors and adventurers of the gold rush had moved on. The city was the site of a potential catastrophe, an epidemic of diphtheria. Diphtheria is a “specific, localized, and superficial bacterial infection.” It produces a powerful and deadly toxin that in the first quarter of the twentieth century claimed over half the lives of anyone unlucky enough to contract it. The residents of Nome were in dire danger, without an adequate supply of antitoxin the city’s prognosis was at best poor.
The challenges of delivering the twenty-five pound package of life-saving antitoxin were many. It would have to be picked up from the railhead in Nenana and transported to Nome over six hundred seventy four miles of the “roughest and most desolate” terrain found anywhere on the planet. The trip, which normally took twenty-five days, would have to be undertaken in just fifteen; in the middle of an arctic winter where the bone-chilling temperatures ranged from -19ºF to -64ºF. To complicate matters it was dark most of the time in late January and early February.
Richard Byrd said, “The Eskimo husky still is, as he always has been, the one absolutely reliable means of polar advance.” Rest assured it was this reliability that spared the lives of the citizenry of Nome. Twenty or so brave mushers: natives, mail carriers and white men put their lives, and the lives of their dogs, on the line for the isolated city. They did not risk it all for money, or for glory, but simply because it was the right thing to do.
Gunnar Kasson and Leonhard Seppala received most of the credit and glory associated with the Nome Serum Run; however, they were just a small part in a much larger, history-making adventure. It was primarily Native Alaskans and mail drivers who weathered the biting cold and the blinding storms who conquered the brutal trail. Those drivers were thanked by President Coolidge and even received a medal for their efforts, but they were mostly over-looked by the media.
The tale begins in January of 1925, in Nome, Alaska. The only physician in Nome, Dr. Curtis Welch, discovered a case of the dreaded “Black Death” disease, diphtheria. The doctor’s supply of antitoxin was very small, and Nome was the medical center for a district of some eleven thousand extremely vulnerable natives.
There was a supply of antitoxin in Anchorage, Alaska. As previously alluded to, the difficulty was in transporting the serum to Nome. There were two biplanes at that time in Alaska, the problem with using them was that not only were they disassembled for the winter, they were also both open-cockpit. The days were short, and the weather was horribly cold. The pilots were willing to give it a go, but it was decided that the risk to the only serum in Alaska was too high for such a reckless endeavor. So just as the natives had done for centuries, the residents of Nome pinned their hope of survival on sled dogs.
Tomorrow: Part 2 of The Serum Run: Sled Dogs Save the Day
Dr. Robert Forto is the Dog Sledding Examiner, a musher training for his first Iditarod under the Team Ineka banner and the host of the popular, Mush! You Huskies Radio Show