February 1, 2023

The Great Race of Mercy and the Serum Run

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+1⁄2 days.

In 1925, diphtheria affected an isolated village in Alaska. Due to the severe cold, it was not possible to transport the medicines by plane and ship, so the transport of the medicines to the town of Noma was organized with the help of mushers (guides or drivers of a dog sled team).

About 1120 miles (1800 kilometers) had to be covered in five days. There were several teams and they took turns on different sections. The Norwegian Gunnar Kasen and his main dog Balto were the first to bring the serum to the village.

It turned out that Kasen had not made a mistake in choosing the main dog, because when the team had an accident, Balto helped his musher, saving him from certain death. When the storm reached its peak and visibility became low they crossed 85 km. Balto is considered a hero, and in 1925 a monument was erected to him in Central Park in New York.

He was truly a hero, like all the other dogs during this mission. However, the dog that did the most difficult part of the work was Togo who crossed the longest distance 260 miles (418 kilometers). He was part of Leonardo Seppala team of dogs. Togo is the husky, in the photo.

Nome, Alaska, was still the largest town in northern Alaska in 1925, with 455 Alaska Natives and 975 settlers of European descent. From November to July, the port on the southern shore of the Seward Peninsula was icebound and inaccessible by steamship.

Curtis Welch was the only doctor in Nome, Alaska, in the winter of 1924–1925. Welch diagnosed the first case of diphtheria in a three-year-old boy who died only two weeks after first becoming ill. Welch called Nome’s mayor George Maynard that same evening to arrange an emergency town council meeting.

In 1925, the U.S. Public Health Service had located 1.1 million units of antitoxin in West Coast hospitals which could be shipped to Seattle, Washington, and then transported to Alaska. The next ship north would not arrive in Seattle until January 31, and it would take another six to seven days to arrive in Seward.

The mail route from Nenana to Nome spanned 674 miles (1,085 km) in total. It crossed the barren Alaska Interior, following the Tanana River for 137 miles (220 km) The route continued for 208 miles (335 km) northwest around the southern shore of the Seward Peninsula.

Half-Athabaskan Edgar Kalland arrived in Minto the night before, and was sent back to Tolovana, traveling 70 mi (110 km) the day before the relay. No new cases of diphtheria were diagnosed on January 28, but two new cases were diagnosed in January 29.

Leonhard Seppala and his dog sled team, with his lead dog Togo, traveled 91 miles (146 km) from Nome from January 27 to January 31 into the oncoming storm. They took the shortcut across the Norton Sound, and headed toward Shaktoolik.

1.1 million units had left Seattle on January 31, and were not due by dog sled until February 8. A sixth death, probably unrelated to diphtheria, was widely reported as a new outbreak of the disease.

The death toll from diphtheria in Nome is officially listed as 5, 6, or 7, but Welch later estimated there were probably at least 100 additional cases. Forty-three new cases were diagnosed in 1926, but they were easily managed with the fresh supply of serum. Gunnar Kaasen and his team became celebrities.

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. The serum race helped spur the Kelly Act, which was signed into law on February 2.

The Air Mail Act of 1925, also known as the Kelly Act, was a key piece of legislation intended to free the airmail from total control by the Post Office Department. The Act was sponsored by Clyde Kelly, and became legislation in February that year. The act created a bidding period for small airmail routes, setting rates and subsidies contractors would receive.

The novella Štafeta (Relay) was published in Czech in 1946. In 1976, the story was retold in Race against Death: A True Story of the Far North. The 1995 animated film Balto was loosely based on the events of the final leg of the serum run.

A premier musher, Seppala ran 170 miles (270 km) east from Nome to Shaktoolik, where he met the serum runner. Gunnar Kaasen and Balto ran a total of 53 miles (85 km) across some of the most dangerous and treacherous parts of the run in total.

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