History of the 1925 Nome Serum Run

The 1925 Serum Run To Nome - A Synopsis

This synopsis, presented as a timetable of important or noteworthy events from the serum run, is condensed from various source materials.  This is not an exhaustive description of the serum run itself.  A more thorough description may be found in such literary resources as the book  The Cruelest Miles, by Gay and Laney Salisbury (which also describes all the events which led up to it, which happened immediately after it, and in the years following).

December, 1924: A two-year old Inuit boy from the native village of Holy Cross, near the gold-mining town of Nome becomes the first person to display symptoms of diphtheria.  Dr. Curtis Welch, Nome's only doctor, misdiagnoses the boy's condition as tonsilitis (dismissing the possibility of it being diphtheria because no one else in the child's family or the village shows any signs of the extremely-contagious disease).  The child dies the next morning, but the child's mother refuses to allow an autopsy of his body.  As a result, an abnormally large number of cases of tonsilitis are diagnosed through December, including another fatality on December 28th.  Subsequently, two more Inuit children die.

January 20, 1925: The first case of diphtheria is properly diagnosed, by Dr. Welch, in three-year old Bill Barnett.  Welch does not administer diphtheria antitoxin to the boy, fearing an already expired batch of 8,000 units (which Nome's 24-bed Maynard Columbus Hospital had in its possession for some time, and which was dated from 1918) would weaken Barnett.  The boy dies the next day (Welch had placed an order for replacement anti-toxin during the summer of 1924, from the health commissioner in Juneau, but the order did not arrive before the port of Nome closed up for the winter that year).

January 21: Seven-year old Bessie Stanley is diagnosed with diphtheria, in its late stages.  Dr. Welch risks injecting her with 6,000 units of the expired antitoxin, and she dies later that day.  That evening, Welch contacts Nome Mayor George Maynard, and arranges for an emergency town council meeting.  During the meeting, he announces that he will need at least one million units to stave off what is becoming an epidemic.  The council immediately declares and implements a quarantine, and appoints Ms. Emily Morgan (one of the hospital's four nurses) as quarantine nurse.

January 22: Dr. Welch sends a telegram, via the U.S. Army's Signal Corps, to alert all major towns in Alaska, and Governor Scott C. Bone, in Juneau, of the public health risk.  A second telegram is sent to the U.S. Public Health Service in Washington D.C., desperately explaining the situation and the need for the antitoxin.

January 24: There are two more fatalities.  Welch and Morgan diagnose 20 more confirmed cases, and 50 more at risk.  At a meeting of the board of health, superintendent Mark Summers (of the Hammon Consolidated Gold Fields...which owns several smaller gold mining companies, including the Pioneer Gold Mining Company of Jafet Lindeberg, John Brynteson, and Eric Lindblom...the "Three Lucky Swedes" of Nome's early days) proposes a relay of dogsleds, using two fast teams.  One would start at the town of Nenana, and the other at Nome, and they would meet in the town of Nulato.  Summers' employee, the now-famous Norwegian dogsled racer, and breeder of Siberian Huskies, Leonhard Seppala, was the ideal choice for the 630-mile round-trip trek from Nome to Nulato and back again.

At the meeting, Mayor Maynard proposes flying the antitoxin by bush plane.  These were World War I-vintage Standard J-1 bi-planes from the Fairbanks Airplane Corporation.  However, with open cockpits and water-cooled engines, they were deemed unreliable for flight in the winter, and lay dismantled.  Additionally, the two pilots who operated these bi-planes were down in the continental United States at the time, and unavailable.  An Alaska Delegate to the United States, Dan Sutherland, attempts to get authorization to use inexperienced pilot Roy Darling.  However, the board of health rejects the airplane option, and votes unanimously for the dogsled relay.  Leonhard Seppala is notified shortly after the meeting, and begins training his 20-dog team (including his famous lead dog Togo, and his half-brother Fritz.  Togo is already an advanced 12 years of age, and will lead the team an incredible distance in spite of that.  This is an amazing and substantial accomplishment for a dog of his age, even today).

January 26: Three hundred thousand units of diphtheria antitoxin are located at the Anchorage Railroad Hospital when the chief surgeon there, John Beeson, hears of the situation in Nome.  Following the orders of Governor Bone, he packs up the antitoxin and hands it over to conductor Frank Knight.  The serum is rushed up to Nenana by rail, and arrives on January 27th.  While not sufficient to defeat the epidemic, this amount could be enough to contain it until more antitoxin arrives (the U.S. Public Health Service had located 1.1 million units of antitoxin in various west coast hospitals.  These were to be shipped to Seattle, Washington, and then transported to Alaska.  The steamship Alameda would be the next ship out of Seattle, but it would not arrive there until the 31st of the month, and then would take another week to arrive in the port town of Seward, Alaska, near Anchorage).

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