The Great Race of Mercy


It was 1925, in Nome, Alaska and children were dying from the diphtheria epidemic. The memories of the locals were still fresh with the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919 which wiped out 50% of the population of Nome. The Alaska natives did not have resistance to many diseases and had limited availability to the antitoxins and serums that were readily available in the lower 48 states.

The conditions across a majority of the interior was impassable by ship (too rough), plane (too cold), or auto (not passable). Nome is normally very cold as it’s only two degrees south of the arctic circle, but conditions in the winter of 1925 were abnormally bad. Temperatures were at 20 year lows, with Fairbanks dropping to -50 F. Winds were 20 mph+ producing 10+ foot drifts. Decisions needed to be made and quick.

Dr. Curtis Welch was the only doctor in Nome, Alaska. By mid- January 1925, the first child, a three-year-old boy, who showed signs of a fever and weakness died. Welch noticed a membrane which grows in mucus that shows up in diphtheria cases. It slowly grows making breathing difficult and then impossible. The following day, a little girl died which showed symptoms only a few days prior. He injected 6,000 units of expired serum into her with no change.

Welch contacted the mayor and they immediately implemented a quarantine. He only had 8,000 units of diphtheria antitoxin. He needed 1 million units. If he didn’t get it in the next 2-3 weeks, it was expected that all 10,000 residents of Nome and the surrounding areas would die. Welch sent the following telegram to all major towns in Alaska and also to the US Public Health Office in Washington DC asking for assistance:

“An epidemic of diphtheria is almost inevitable here. Stop. I am in urgent need of one million units of diphtheria antitoxin, stop, mail is only form of transportation. Stop. I have made application to Commissioner of Health of the Territories for antitoxin already. Stop. There are about 3000 (sic) white natives in the district.”

A few days after this message was sent, Welch had 20 more confirmed cases. The US Public Health service located 1.1 million units of serum in west coast hospitals but it would take 10 days for it to get to Nome. Luckily, they found 300,000 units in the Alaska Railroad Hospital in Anchorage. This amount could hold Nome over until the 1.1 million units arrived.

It was decided that a dogsled relay was the best option to take the serum from Anchorage to Nome, a 674-mile journey, in 30 mile increments. This was a trip that would normally take 10 days. They had to make the run in less than 7 days or the serum would expire.

Famous musher, Leonhard Seppala (shown below) and his lead dog Togo, who held racing records in the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, would have the longest and hardest part of the journey (91 miles). He had to cross over Norton Sound twice. In the end, Leonhard would suffer frostbite on his hands and over most of his face to help save thousands of lives at Nome. The 1925 serum run to Nome is also known as the Great Race of Mercy.

I was going to write the rest of this incredible story, but Jennifer Houdek does a phenomenal job. [READ IT HERE]

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