TODAY in HISTORY: The Great Race of Mercy

The real Balto, the lead dog that lead the pack to deliver a diphtheria serum, upon his arrival in Alaska. – pattyinglishms.hubpages.com

by William “Doc” Halliday

It seems that every time I step on a rusty nail (or a similar occurrence) my health care provider wants to be certain that I have a current Tdap vaccination.  What is Tdap?  It is the vaccine that covers tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough).

Diphtheria is a virus that is transmitted from person to person, usually through respiratory droplets, by coughing or sneezing.  When the bacteria that causes diphtheria gets into and attaches itself to the lining of the respiratory system, which includes parts of the body that help you breathe, they produce a toxin.  This poison can cause; weakness, sore throat, fever, and swollen glands in the neck.

Most people in the United States don’t think about diphtheria, but it was once was a major cause of illness and death among children.

The poison destroys healthy tissues in the respiratory system. Within two to three days, the dead tissue forms a thick, gray coating that can build up in the throat and nose. This thick gray coating is called a “pseudomembrane.” It can cover tissues in the nose, tonsils, voice box, and throat, making it very hard to breathe and swallow.  This is a painful death.

Most people in the United States don’t think about diphtheria, but it was once was a major cause of illness and death among children.  In 1921, there were 206,000 cases of diphtheria recorded in the United States.  Of those, 15,520 resulted in death.  What would you do to prevent your child from contracting this terrible disease?  What would you do to prevent over 1,400 people from contracting the disease?

In 1925 the population of Nome, Alaska had shrunk to about 1,430 residents from its high of about 20,000 at the height of the gold rush.  This port on the Seward Peninsula in the Bering Sea was icebound and inaccessible by steamship from November to July each winter.  The Iditarod Trail was the only connection Nome had to Seward and the rest of the world.  The trail is over 1,100 miles in length.  It crosses several mountain ranges and valleys.  In 1925 dogsleds using this trail was the primary means of supply Nome with mail and supplies during the winter.

Dogs have been used for hunting and travel for over a thousand years. Their contribution to our human culture has been documented since at least the 10th century BC.  When American explorers and prospectors arrived in the Alaskan Territory, they quickly learned from Native Alaskans that sled dog teams were the only way to dependably move supplies and people across the frozen landscape. Dogsleds could carry over 1,100 pounds of supplies.  During the gold rush years, roadhouses for people and dog barns had been established about every 20 miles along the trail.  This was the accepted maximum daily travel.  Wealthy people could travel by dogsled and spend each night in a roadhouse.  Those who couldn’t afford to travel by dogsled had to walk on snowshoes.

On February 2, 1925, 92 years ago today, the first batch of serum arrived in Nome.  While many heroic men and dogs participated in the relay, Balto, the lead dog of the final relay team became famous for delivering the diphtheria drug. 

In January of 1925 the first case of diphtheria was confirmed in a three-year old boy in Nome.  By the end of January there were twenty confirmed cases and at least 50 more cases were suspected.  Quarantine was put into effect, but without antitoxin the 10,000 people in the surrounding area were expected to have a virtual 100 percent mortality rate.

Radio telegrams were sent pleading for help.  There were calls by some people to use aircraft to deliver the serum, but the Governor rejected the idea.  The only aircraft available were very primitive with open cockpits.  It was not feasible to fly in the subfreezing temperatures.  Instead, a relay of dogsled teams and mushers was established.  The serum would be delivered by train to Nenana and travel the remaining 674 miles to Nome by dogsled relays.

Altogether, the teams covered the 674 miles in 127.5 hours.  This was not only a world record, but was accomplished in extreme subzero temperatures and in blizzard-like conditions with hurricane force winds. The wind chill was -85 degrees F.  A number of dogs died during the trip.  Ninety-two years ago, on February 2, 1925 the first batch of serum arrived in Nome.  While many heroic men and dogs participated in the relay, Balto, the lead dog of the final relay team became famous.  There is a statue of that dog in New York’s Central Park.

William “Doc” Halliday, historian and political writer can be contacted at w_halliday@yahoo.com .

William "Doc" Halliday

Historian, Political Commentator

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