I am a proud podcast fanatic and having been diving into the archives of “Stuff You Missed in History Class” and came across an episode about the “Nome Serum Run” (Podcast; Blog Post). Instantly excited, I eagerly listened to the episode- multiple times.
Before I lose myself in discussing the dog himself, I should probably begin with discussing the situation that led to Bolto’s future celebrity. The city of Nome, Alaska was founded around the same area as an older Inuit settlement (known as Sitnasuak to the local Inupiat people) as the result of a Gold Rush that began in 1898. The Gold Rush quickly faded and the population of Nome decreased.
By 1925, Nome and the surrounding communities were served by only one doctor, Curtis Welch, and four nurses at a 25-bed hospital. There was a community of European-origin settlers leftover from the gold-rush, a few surrounding towns, and a community of Alaskan Native Inupiat people who settled along the shores of a river close to Nome.
Diphtheria, The Disease
Diphtheria is caused by infection with Corynebacterium diphtheriae. The bacteria release a toxin that leads to a thick covering in the back of the throat, which leads to difficulty breathing. If left untreated, heart failure, paralysis, and even death may result. I will spare you the ugly pictures of the characteristic lesions and grey-pseudomembranes, but I am sure you know how to find them if you like. Instead, enjoy a picture of the “Disease Villain” diphtheria from the CDC Kid-Friendly Fact Sheet. Check out the CDC information on diphtheria for more information.
Today, diphtheria is a very rare disease due to the development and implementation of a vaccine. But back in 1925, diphtheria was primarily treated with an antitoxin. Known as “The Strangling Angel of Children”, diphtheria was a very deadly disease if antitoxin could not be administered in good time.
Epidemic, The Tragedy
In the summer of 1924, Dr. Welch had noticed that the supply of diphtheria antitoxin had expired, it had been made way back in 1918. Dr. Welch requested a new supply, but it did not arrive before the onset of winter. At this time, Nome was completely shut off from the sea by ice for the majority of the winter season. Once the final supply ship left port before the sea froze, the only means of shipping to Nome was via the mail, which was delivered by dog teams. As he had not seen a single case of diphtheria in his years as the doctor, Dr. Welch believed that the town could wait until the first ship of spring.
In early 1925, Dr. Welch treated a young Alaskan Native child for what he assumed was
tonsillitis. Quickly, Dr. Welch began to suspect that tonsillitis was not the correct diagnosis. On January 20th, Dr. Welch diagnosed the first official case of diphtheria in 3-year-old Bill Barnett, but this was after the death of the first child and two more Alaskan Natives. Following these deaths, Dr. Welch decided to try the expired antitoxin in the next patient, 7-year-old Bessie Stanley, on January 21st. Bessie died the next day.
Dr. Welch called a town meeting and immediately they began quarantine procedures. On January 22nd, Dr. Welch sent a telegraph to all major towns in the Alaskan Territory (not a state yet) and Washington, D.C., with this message: “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 white natives in the district”.
The Great Race of Mercy, The Solution
300,000 units of diphtheria antitoxin were found at the Anchorage Railroad Hospital and a plan was quickly put into place. They knew that this was not enough units to end the epidemic in Nome, a single dose is 1,000s of units, but it would be enough to ease the epidemic until more serum could arrive from Seattle (via ship to Seeward, train, and then another dogsled relay). The 300,000 units of serum traveled by train to Nenana and from there were taken by a relay of dogsleds to Nome.
“Wild Bill” Shannon was the first musher in the relay, he was given the package of antitoxin at the Nenana train station at 9pm on January 27th. Shannon and his team of 9 inexperienced dogs, led by Blackie, left immediately, despite temperatures reaching -62°F during their overnight trek. By the end this ordeal at least three, and possibly a fourth, of Shannon’s dogs had perished.
Edgar Kalland, who was Half-Athabaskan (Alaskan Native), picked up the relay in Minto. Following a series of Athabaskan mushers, George Nollner handed the serum to Charlie Evans at Bishop Mountain on January 30th. Two of Evans dogs perished before Evans handed the serum to Tommy Patsy. The serum then traveled with Jack Nicolai, Alaska Natives Victor Anagick and Myles Gonangnan, and Henry Ivanoff before being handed off to Leonhard Seppala and his team led by Togo for the longest and most treacherous stretch of the relay between Shaktoolik and Golovin. In Golovin, Seppala handed the serum to Charlie Olsen who passed it on to Gunnar Kaasen with his lead dog Balto.
Balto, The Sled Dog
This podcast was, obviously, not the first time I had heard of Balto or Nome Serum Run. As a native of Northeast Ohio, I have been to many of the great museums in Cleveland many a time on field trips and just for fun. The children of Northeast Ohio, including myself, have a great fondness for Balto, because he lives on at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, which celebrated the 90th Anniversary of the Nome Serum Run last January.
Balto was a black and white, Siberian Husky born sometime in 1919. He was named after the Sami (Native peoples of Northern Scandinavia) explorer Samuel Balto. After rising to fame after the Nome Serum Run, Balto and the other dogs were sold into a life of variety entertainment.
Cleveland, Ohio businessman George Kimble was appalled by the horrible conditions in which Balto and his companions were kept. He rallied the children of Cleveland to raise money to purchase Balto and his friends. They were successful and on March 19, 1927, Balto and six of his companions were given a heroes welcome to Cleveland. Balto and the others moved into their permanent home at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo (the Brookside Zoo).
Balto died at age 14 on March 14, 1933, following. Mounted by a taxidermist, Balto was donated to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History where he can still be seen today.
Front Street, Nome, Alaska
Kaasen pushed on through the night and even related later that it was so cold his eyes froze shut, leaving Balto completely in control of the direction and pacing of the team. Kaasen noted that the visibility was so poor, at times he could not see the first set of dogs in his team. When Kaasen reached the hand-off at Point Safety, the next musher was asleep. Deciding that it would be to costly to wait for him to wake up and set up his team, Kaasen decided to push-on, with hopes of reaching Nome faster.
Kaasen and his team pulled into Front Street at 5:30am with every vial of the antitoxin intact.
It took 5 days and 7 hours (normally 15-20 days for the typical mail-musher), 20 mushers, and 150 dogs were instrumental in the relay that took place. There were 27 confirmed cases, and officially 5-7 deaths, by the lifting of the quarantine on February 21st. Dr. Welch estimated that there were as many as 100 additional cases in the surrounding Native populations and that more deaths may not have been reported.
Many believe the Nome Serum Race was the inspiration for the yearly Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, this is not really true. Additionally, while Kaasen and Bolto received all the fanfare, many today believe that it is really Seppala and Togo deserved it, as they completed the longest and most difficult part of the journey. Regardless, The Great Race of Mercy is a wonderful example of a community coming to the aid of their own despite Mother Nature fighting back.