A potential diphtheria epidemic in Alaska was avoided after a dogsled relay transported vials of antitoxin 674 miles in five and a half days in “Great Race of Mercy”.
The town of Nome lies just 2 degrees south of the Arctic Circle and, at the time of the diphtheria outbreak, approximately 10,000 people lived in and around the town. The town’s sole doctor, Curtis Welch, had ordered diphtheria antitoxin to replace the expired stocks in the hospital, but the shipment did not make it to Nome before the port on the Bering Sea closed for the winter.
In December 1924 Dr Welch diagnosed a young boy with tonsillitis, having dismissed the possibility of it being diphtheria since nobody else had displayed symptoms of this highly contagious disease. The child died soon after, but his mother refused to allow Welch to perform an autopsy, meaning that a number of other children caught and died of the disease before Welch was formally able to diagnose diphtheria in mid-January.
On 21 January the town council imposed a quarantine and put out an urgent call for antitoxin, which was located in Anchorage. With the fierce winter conditions making aircraft delivery impossible, the decision was made to transport the valuable cargo using a dogsled relay. The first of twenty mushers involved in the relay, “Wild Bill” Shannon collected the package at 9pm on 27 January and immediately set off on the first leg in a temperature of −46°C. The longest and most hazardous leg, stretching 91 miles, was completed by Norwegian-born Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo.
At 5.30am on 2 February the serum arrived in Nome with Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog Balto. Every ampule remained intact, and within three weeks the quarantine was lifted.