Episode 38: The Great Race of Mercy – Half-Arsed History

The epic tale of Alaskan volunteers and their sled dogs bringing a lifesaving serum across the Alaskan wilderness first started in a small town called Nome. It was a small port town of around 10,000 people located just 4 degrees south of the arctic circle. 

In January 1925 a two-year-old girl from Nome came down with what the doctor thought at first was tonsillitis. But, shockingly the child died the next morning, accompanied by many more cases of what seemed to be tonsillitis. After this, the doctor knew he was dealing with an outbreak of diphtheria. Diphtheria is a terrible disease that causes bacteria to coat the entire windpipe of a person which slowly suffocates them to death.

Luckily there is an anti-bacteria serum that is an easy cure to the disease! The only problem was that the closest batch of the life-saving serum was located 650 miles away in Anchorage. Nome was inaccessible by boat and plane since the outbreak occurred in the middle of Alaska’s unforgiving winter, where temperatures commonly dipped to 45 degrees below zero. So the heroic task of delivering the lifesaving cargo was left up to 20 volunteers and 150 of their brave dogs. 

Every Day Is Special: February 2 – Serum Run, AKA the Great Race of Mercy

However, they faced a major problem. The trip by dog sled usually took about a month, but due to how contagious the disease was, the people of Nome wouldn’t survive that long without the serum. So in order to make the trip as quick as possible, the volunteers coordinated a timed relay of teams to pass the serum along to one another on the route from Anchorage to Nome.

The great race to save Nome started with the first sled team leaving on January 27th, facing conditions of 50 degrees below zero. The team headed west into the treacherous wilderness carrying the precious cargo of 300,000 thousand doses of the serum. The priceless doses were then passed in a beautifully congregated effort in between relay teams all the way up the state until it reached the final team.

The final team was led by volunteer Gunnar Kassel and his Siberian husky Balto. Together they took the lifesaving cargo into an oncoming storm with temperatures of -85 degrees. The original plan was to pass the serum off to another volunteer just before Nome, but Kassel found the man asleep when arriving.

The Real Story of Amblin's Balto – American Kennel Club

Rather than waiting for the man to wake up and arrange his dogs, Kassel decided to make the final 25 mile push himself. On February 2nd just before dawn. It was said that Kassel stumped off the sled covered in frostbite and handed the package off to the doctor. He then collapsed in a resident’s arms and said three words before passing out “Damn fine dogs.”. 

All together the team of 20 volunteers and 150 courageous dogs covered 674 miles in 5 and a half days. All while facing subzero temperatures and hurricane level winds. But the important thing was that it worked! 

The whole town of 10,000 faced death without this serum and by the end of the epidemic, the death toll only sat at 7. 

1925 serum run to Nome - Wikipedia

The many hearts, hands, and paws went into this effort and their legacy still stands today. It just goes to show the feats that can be accomplished when you team man and canine together.

If you found this story interesting check out the links below for the full story in depth.