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Human Courage at its greatest: The original Iditarod Race saves lives

Posted by on Jun. 13, 2010 at 11:14 PM
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The Iditarod: Commemorating the 1925 Emergency Delivery of Diphtheria Serum to Nome, Alaska

The Iditarod is run each year to commemorate the emergency delivery in 1925 of diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, Alaska. Nome in 1925 had changed from a booming, boisterous turn-of-the-century gold-rush camp into a small, quite town of about 1,500 people. It was fifteen years since the end of the gold-rush, but Nome remained an important settlement on the Seward Peninsula.

Nome, Alaska in 1925

Dr. Curtis Welch

The First Signs of an Epidemic

It was a normal mid-January afternoon in Nome. Doctor Curtis Welch, physician and director of the US Public Health Service, was doing paperwork in his office at the Merchants and Miners Bank of Alaska building. An Eskimo man came into the office asking the doctor to come quickly, his two children were very sick. Dr. Welch raced to the Sand Spit Eskimo settlement, west of the Snake River on the fringes of Nome.

The children's temperatures were dangerously high, and their breathing was labored and shallow. Dr. Welch asked the mother how the children had become ill and what their symptoms had been. She replied that they had been sick for about three days. She thought it was a bad cold because their throats had become red and sore. Dr. Welch tried to examine their throats, but they could not open their mouths far enough for him to do so. He tried to comfort the mother and then returned to his office.

Dr. Welch had wished many times that he had access to a good laboratory where he could send specimens for analysis. It was very strange. Children don't die of sore throats, but the two Eskimo children were dying. At one point he considered diphtheria but it was highly unlikely. He hadn't seen a case in northern Alaska in twenty years. Dispute the doctor's efforts the Eskimo children died the following day.

A few days later, on January 21, Dr. Welch was called to the home of a white family to examine their six-year-old son. The child had been sick for two days with a sore throat. Dr. Welch examined the boy's throat and recognized immediately the dirty white patches of the diphtheria membrane. The doctor realized the terrible implications of this diagnosis. Diphtheria, left un-checked, would spread with devastating speed.

Dr. Welch met at once with Nome's mayor and city council. He told them of the imminent epidemic and stressed that some way must be found to get the diphtheria antitoxin to Nome within 2 weeks. The serum would check the spread of the disease and would help those already infected. His main concern was with the native population that had little or no immunity to white-man's diseases. A flu epidemic in 1919 had wiped out entire Eskimo villages.

Dr. Welch realized that unless the antitoxin was obtained quickly, hundreds of Eskimo woman and children would die of the disease.

It was decided that a relay of dog sled teams would transport the serum between Nenana and Nome. (Photo by Rob Stapleton)

There was widespread relief when it was discovered that the Alaska Railroad Hospital in Anchorage had 300,000 units of the life saving serum. It was not much, but it would be enough to stem the tide of the epidemic. It was decided to transport the serum by train from Anchorage to Nenana, a town on the Tanana River 220 miles north of Anchorage, and then by a relay of dog teams over the 674 miles between Nenana and Nome. This epic relay was carried out by diverse group of 20 mushers: Eskimo, Russian-Eskimo, Norwegian, Irish and Indians. These men had stamina and toughness in common, and all shared the special understanding and working partnership with their sled dogs that would be the key to the success of the venture.

On January 27, 1925, "Wild Bill" Shannon and his dog team set out from Nenana, Alaska on the first leg of the relay to Nome.

The last leg reached Nome on Monday, February 2 at 5:30 in the morning. Dr. Welch was awakened by a persistent knocking on his front door. When he opened it he found an exhausted Gunnar Kaasen, the musher of the final leg of the relay. Kaasen handed him a twenty pound, fur-and-canvas-covered package containing the 300,000 units of serum. In the street were his 13 dogs harnessed to a sled, their heads and bushy tails hanging almost to the ground. They had covered the last fifty-three miles of the epic relay in seven and a half hours. These dogs, and the teams that preceeded them, had traversed 674 ice-and-snow covered miles in less than five days. They delivered to Dr. Welch the life-saving serum that within a week would break the back of the diphtheria epidemic.

Almost forgotten is the fact that five days later a second batch of serum arrived in Seward Alaska. It was shipped in record time by train to Nenana and again relayed by dog teams as far as Unalakeleet (a little of 200 miles from Nome). Many of the original mushers were in the second run.

In 1966-67 Dorothy Page and Joe Redington Sr. organized the first Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race to commemorate the serum relay. In 1973 the race was expanded to its present course.

More Facts About the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race:

Photo by Rob Stapleton

First Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race (1967) Winner: Dick Wilmarth, Red 9 Devil, AK, in 20 days, 49 minutes, 41 seconds.

First Woman Winner: Libby Riddles, Teller, AK, in 18 days, 20 minutes, 17 seconds in 1985.

Fastest Running: Martin Buser, Big Lake, Alaska, in 08 days 22 hours 46 minutes and 02 seconds in 2002.

Most Wins: Rick Swenson, Two Rivers, AK. with 5 wins.

Most Wins by Woman Musher: Susan Butcher, Manley, AK. with 4 wins.

by on Jun. 13, 2010 at 11:14 PM
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Replies (1-2):
by Ruby Member on Jun. 13, 2010 at 11:19 PM

Have you ever seen Balto???

by on Jun. 14, 2010 at 12:06 AM

No I haven't ever heard of it.

Quoting erinsmom1964:

Have you ever seen Balto???

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