The Nome Serum Run

Also known as the Great Race of Mercy, the Nome serum run was a dog sled relay over nearly 700 miles to deliver life-saving medication to the remote town of Nome, Alaska. 20 mushers and 155 dogs worked together to deliver diphtheria antitoxin, undoubtedly saving many lives. The serum run is most associated with the story of the Siberian Husky Balto, who became a canine celebrity in the aftermath of the event. However, other mushers at the time and historians since have questioned his prominence in the narrative, arguing other dogs ran longer, more dangerous legs. 

Nome is situated just two degrees south of the Arctic circle. Once the most populous town in Alaska during the Gold Rush, its population had shrunk to 1,430 by 1925. Around two thirds of these were European settlers, the remainder native Alaskans. Between November and July, the town’s small port is inaccessible due to sea ice. During this time, the only link between Nome and other settlements in Alaska is the Iditarod Trail, which runs nearly 1,000 miles through the Alaskan interior. 

In late 1924, the town doctor of Nome discovered that the town’s supply of diphtheria antitoxin had expired. However, the port iced over before fresh supplies could be delivered by ship. Days after the last ships departed, doctor Curtis Welch began treating children for what he believed was tonsillitis. However, cases quickly grew, and four children died. By mid-January, Welch was able to confirm that the children were suffering from diphtheria. An attempt to treat a seven-year-old girl with expired antitoxin resulted in her death just a few hours later. 

Musher and dog Trainer Leonhard Seppala with his team, including Togo (far left). Image: Carrie McLain Museum

Welch asked the town mayor to call an emergency council meeting, which implemented a quarantine. Radio telegrams were sent to other towns in Alaska, and assistance was asked of the US Public Health Service in Washington DC. Despite the quarantine, cases grew to more than 50. Without serum to treat it, mortality rates were predicted to approach 100%. 

300,000 doses of antitoxin were sourced from a hospital in Anchorage. The problem then became how to transport them to Nome. In 1925 planes were in use, but the bitter cold made them unreliable. The longest recorded flight in Alaska at the time had covered only 260 miles, less than half of the distance needed to transport serum from Anchorage to Nome.

Dismissed as impractical, the decision was made to use a relay of dog teams to deliver the serum. The teams would face temperatures approaching 20-year lows for Alaska, as cold as -46C. 25mph winds would create snowdrifts along their route up to three metres tall. In total, the route would require the combined dog teams to cover 674 miles.

Modern dog teams on the Iditarod Trail. Image: Bureau of Land Management

Mail carriers, already strung out along the route with their dog teams, were selected to complete the relay. These were highly revered men, usually native Alaskans, and considered the best dog mushers in the region. Each leg was designed to cover around 25 miles, considered ‘an extreme day’s mush’ but some teams ended up covering much greater distances.

The first musher in the relay, Bill Shannon, received the serum package from the train station in Nenana on the evening of January 27th. Despite the extreme temperatures and late hour, he set out immediately with his team of 11 dogs, led by Blackie.  Shannon jogged alongside the sled to keep himself warm, but by the time he reached the next stage at 3am he was suffering from hypothermia and had severe frostbite on his face. Three of his dogs died.

Shannon passed the serum package on to musher Edgar Kalland in Tolovana the following morning. On arriving in Manley Hot Springs, a roadhouse owner was forced to pour water over Kalland’s hands to free them from the sled handlebar, where they had frozen in place. The relay continued through several more mushers, with another losing two more dogs to frostbite. The man, Charlie Evans, joined his dog team in harness to continue pulling the sled. 

As the effort continued, telegraph updates reported additional deaths in Nome. The package was handed on to Norwegian dog trainer Leonhard Seppala when he backtracked from his starting point, fortunately finding previous musher Henry Ivanoff after his dog team became entangled with a reindeer. Seppala was considered the best musher and trainer on the relay, while his lead dog Togo was equally renowned. 

Seppala travelled non-stop through the dark and gale force winds, with the team led by Togo across ice that had begun to break up. This was followed by a section that included a number of mountains, including Little McKinley, with a total elevation of 1,500m along the eight-mile route. Seppala passed on the serum on February 1st. In total, his team had run 260 miles to retrieve and deliver the serum. The life-saving medication was now just 78 miles from Nome.

Musher Gunnar Kaasen with lead dog Balto. Image: Brown Brothers

At 10pm the same day, driver Gunnar Kaasen departed with his team, led by Siberian Husky Balto. In whiteout conditions he overshot the exchange point in Solomon. On realising his mistake he pressed on, suffering severe frostbite after his sled overturned and the serum container was lost in a snowbank. He dug with his hands for an extended period of time to retrieve it. 

Kaasen reached the final exchange of Point Safety ahead of schedule, meaning that the next driver was still sleeping, assuming Kaasen was still in Solomon. Kaasen pressed on, arriving in Nome at 5:30am on February 2nd. On inspection, not a single vial of the antitoxin had broken, and it was thawed and ready to administer the same day. By February 3rd, the epidemic was considered under control.  

Total deaths from diphtheria in Nome are variously reported as five, six or seven. Some historians consider the death toll much higher in Inuit camps outside of the town itself, that rarely report deaths to the authorities. Each musher on the relay received a letter of commendation from President Calvin Coolidge, and Balto travelled to Los Angeles to receive a bone-shaped key to the city and wreath from Hollywood actress Mary Pickford.

Kaasen, Balto and their team toured the West Coast of the US for most of the following year. The dogs eventually wound up in the possession of a sideshow, before being rescued and sent to live at the Cleveland Zoo. Balto was euthanised due to old age in March 1933, at the age of 14. A statue of him now stands in Central Park. 

Seppala also toured the West Coast as well as the Midwest and New England. During a 10-day residence at Madison Square Garden, Togo was presented with a medal by legendary Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Seppala eventually set up a breeding kennel for Siberian Huskies and won a silver medal in sled dog racing at the 1932 Lake Placid Winter Olympics. Togo died, with Seppala at his size, in December 1929, at the age of 16. His descendants formed the core of the ‘Seppala Siberian Sleddog’ line, that forms the bulk of the gene pool for show Siberian Huskies today. 

Statue of Balto in Central Park. Image: Jim Henderson

In the years since, some have criticised the focus on Balto and Kaasen in coverage of the serum run. In particular, they argue that Seppala travelled further and through the more dangerous sections of the route. Kaasen has also been criticised by other mushers on the relay for his decision not to wake the final driver, Ed Rohn, and press on himself. Several, including Rohn himself, believed that Kaasen was motivated by a desire to claim the glory of the final leg for himself, rather than an altruistic desire to complete the relay as quickly as possible. 

Seppala was the owner of numerous dogs used on the relay, including Balto. Seppala was of the opinion that Balto was an average freight dog at best, and left him out of his own team. He also claimed that Kaasen’s team was actually led by a dog named Fox, but news coverage found Balto a more evocative name.

Seppala remained bitter that his own lead dog, Togo, had been somewhat overlooked when he felt he was responsible for the success of the relay. In 1960, over 30 years after Togo’s death, Seppala maintained that he had been the best dog ever to travel the Alaska trail. 

The press coverage of the Nome serum run is credited with a nationwide inoculation drive that dramatically reduced cases of diphtheria across the United States. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was established in 1973, where dog teams compete to cover the route covered by the serum relay.    

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