Great Race of Mercy

Great Race of Mercy

After five-and-a-half days and 1000 kilometres of breakneck-speed dog sledding in subzero temperatures, a team of exhausted sled dogs carrying vials of life-saving diphtheria serum and their frostbitten musher reach Nome, Alaska, on this day in 1925. The heroic journey saved hundreds of lives in the far reaches of Alaska and goes down in history as the Great Race of Mercy, or the Nome Serum Run.

It all began when cases of what doctor Curtis Welch thought was tonsillitis began cropping up in Nome. When several children died of the illness, Doctor Welch discovered it was worse—Nome, and all of Northwest Alaska, was under threat of a diphtheria epidemic. Together with Nome’s mayor, Welch quarantined the small town and put out a call for one million units of diphtheria anti-toxin. Nome lies just below the Arctic Circle and in the winters of the 1920s, was accessible only by the Iditarod Trail, a 1,500-kilometre path that runs through mountain ranges and the vast, dangerous interior of Alaska. It was determined that the only way to transport vaccines in time would be by sled.

A relay was organised with 20 of the region’s best sled teams. On 27 January at 9 PM, musher “Wild Bill” Shannon picked up the precious cargo—a package of diphtheria anti-toxin—from the train station at Nenana and pushed his team through -45 C temperatures to Tolovana. His nose was black from frostbite and he had lost four dogs. The anti-toxin changed hands several more times, to Edgar Kallands, Henry Ivanoff, Leonhard Seppala, Charlie Olsen, and Gunnar Kaasen, each of whom braved sub-zero temperatures, raging winds, and exhaustion to transport the vaccine in time. On 2 February 1925 at 5:30 AM, Kaasen, who had driven through a storm so intense he couldn’t see his dog team in front of him, arrived in Nome, the entire supply of anti-toxin intact.

Welch immediately began treating infected children with the serum. Though some five children had died, as well as an unknown number of Inuit who had not reported their deaths, the death toll would have been far higher had the diphtheria serum not arrived in time.

The mushers and their dogs became national celebrities as a result of their courageous work. A statue of Balto, one of the lead sled dogs, still stands in New York’s Central Park to commemorate the historic run.

Photo Credit: © Bettmann/CORBIS
Photo Caption: A photo of musher Gunnar Kasson and Balto in front of Balto’s statue in Central Park, New York, that commemorates the Great Race of Mercy.