The Story of The Great Serum Run of 1925

Alaska covers an area of a half million square miles, most of which is  unspoiled wilderness. Mt McKinley, Denali Park, fishing, camping, cruising, it's all there.  It also has a rich history of hardy people who loved the land and toughed it out in harsh living conditions.The Iditarod Race, which takes place every Spring, is in part to commemorate the Serum Run of 1925. Using the mail route across some of the most remote and dangerous parts of Alaska and with every bit of courage and grit they processed, the mushers relayed the antitoxin 674 miles in 127 hours and save the people of Nome from a diphtheria epidemic.  This is a synopsis of the story taken from the book The Cruelest Miles.  Once again, truth is far more amazing than fiction.  It's a lengthy read but I hope you enjoy it.

The beauty of Alaska

Mt. McKinley

Lots of wildlife in Alaska

Walrus in the Bering Sea

An Inuit Indian Boy

A native building an igloo

Nome lies just two degrees south of the Arctic Circle, and while greatly diminished from its peak population of 20,000 during the gold rush days, in 1925 it was the largest town in the northern half of Alaska. From November to July, the port of the Seward Peninsula on the Bering Sea was icebound and inaccessible by steamship. The only link to the rest of the world during the winter was the Iditarod Trail. It ran 938 miles from the port of Seward, across several mountain ranges and the vast Alaska Interior to Nome. Within a decade bush pilots would become the dominant method of transportation during the winter months,but in 1925 the primary source of mail and needed supplies was the dog sled.

Leonhard Seppala 1877 – 1967) came to Alaska from Norway in search of gold and quickly fell in love with the rugged country and dog sledding. He is considered the founder of the Siberian Husky breed.  He had a larger than life personality and would have been considered some what of a celebrity.  When he drove his dog sled into town the children would run along the side, and then, to everyone's delight, he turned cartwheels in the center of the road. He was the most respected and competent mushers in the area and was asked to cover the most dangerous parts of the relay. 


The Serum run of 1925

Dr. Curtis Welch
The only doctor in Nome and the surrounding communities was Curtis Welch, who was supported by four nurses at the 24-bed Maynard Columbus Hospital. In the summer of 1924, his supply of 80,000 units of diphtheria antitoxin (from 1918) expired, but the order he placed with the health commissioner in Juneau did not arrive before the port closed.

Shortly after the departure of the last ship of the year, the Alameda, a two-year-old Alaska Native from the nearby village of Holy Cross became the first to display symptoms of diphtheria. Welch diagnosed it as tonsillitis, dismissing diphtheria because no one else in the child's family or village showed signs of the disease.  The child died the next morning.  An abnormally large number of cases of tonsillitis were diagnosed through December, including one fatality. Two more Alaska Native children died, and on January 20 the first case of diphtheria was diagnosed in three-year-old Bill Barnett. He had the characteristic grayish lesions on his throat and in his nasal membranes. Welch did not administer the antitoxin, because he was worried the expired batch might weaken the boy. He died the next day.

On January 21, seven-year-old Bessie Stanley was diagnosed in the late stages of the disease, and was injected with 6,000 units of antitoxin. She died later that day. The same evening, Welch called Mayor George Maynard, and arranged an emergency town council meeting. Welch announced he needed at least one million units to stave off an epidemic. The council immediately implemented a quarantine.

On January 22, 1925, Welch sent a radio telegram via the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System.

"An epidemic of diphtheria is almost inevitable here STOP I am in urgent need of one million units of diphtheria antitoxin STOP Mail is only form of transportation STOP I have made application to Commissioner of Health of the Territories for antitoxin already STOP  There are about 3000 white natives in the district"

By January 24 there were two more fatalities and Welch diagnosed 20 more confirmed cases.  The number of people threatened was about 10,000 and the expected mortality rate was close to 100 percent without the antitoxin.

Diphtheria is a bacterial infection that grows in the throat. It eventually cuts off the air supply and the person suffocates.

The hospital in Nome

Mayor Maynard proposed flying the antitoxin by aircraft. The only planes operating in Alaska in 1925 were three World War I vintage Standard J-1 biplanes belonging to Bennet Rodebaugh's Fairbanks Airplane company. The aircraft were dismantled for the winter, had open cockpits, and had water-cooled engines that were unreliable in cold weather. Since both pilots were in the continental United States, Alaska Delegate Dan Sutherland attempted to get the authorization to use an inexperienced pilot, Roy Darling.

While potentially quicker, the board of health rejected the option and voted unanimously for the dogsled relay.

The U.S. Public Health Service had located 1.1 million units of serum in West Coast hospitals which could be shipped to Seattle, and then transported to Alaska. The Alameda would be the next ship north, and would not arrive in Seattle until January 31, and then would take another 6 to 7 days to arrive in Seward. On January 26, 300,000 units were discovered in Anchorage Railroad Hospital, when the chief of surgery, John Beeson, heard of the need. At Governor Scott Bone's order, it was packed and handed to conductor Frank Knight, who arrived in Nenana on January 27. While not sufficient to defeat the epidemic, the 300,000 units could hold it at bay until the larger shipment arrived.

The temperatures across the Interior were at 20-year lows due to a high pressure system from the Arctic, and in Fairbanks the temperature was −50 °F

While the first batch of serum was traveling to Nenana, Governor Bone gave final authorization to the dog relay, but ordered Edward Wetzler, the U.S. Post Office inspector, to arrange a relay of the best drivers and dogs across the Interior with Seppala being the musher who covered the Norton Sound, the most dangerous part of the trail. The teams would travel day and night until they reached Nome.

The first musher in the relay was "Wild Bill" Shannon, who was handed the 20 pounds package at the train station in Nenana on January 27 at 9:00 at night. Despite a temperature of −50 °F, Shannon left immediately with his team of 9 inexperienced dogs, led by Blackie. The temperature began to drop, and the team was forced onto the colder ice of the river because the trail had been destroyed by horses. Despite jogging alongside the sled to keep warm, Shannon developed hypothermia. He reached Minto at 3 AM, with parts of his face black from frostbite. The temperature was −62 °F.

After warming the serum by the fire and resting for four hours, Shannon dropped three dogs and left with the remaining 6. Shannon and his team arrived in bad shape at 11 AM, and handed over the serum. After warming the serum in the roadhouse, Kallands headed into the forest. The temperature had risen to −56 °F, and according to at least one report the owner of the roadhouse at Manley Hot Springs had to pour hot water over Kallands' hands to get them off the sled's handlebar when he arrived at 4 PM.

In response to more cases being diagnosed GovernorBone decided to speed up the relay and authorized the addition of more drivers to Seppala's leg of the relay, so they could travel without rest. Seppala was still scheduled to cover the most dangerous leg, the shortcut across Norton Sound, but the telephone and telegraph systems bypassed the small villages he was passing through, and there was no way to tell him to wait at Shaktoolik. The plan relied on the driver from the north catching Seppala on the trail. Summers arranged for drivers along the last leg, including Seppala's colleague Gunnar Kaasen

Leonhard Seppala and Gunnar Kassen

Togo was Seppalas's favorite dog

Balto was Kaasen favorite dog.

Leonhard Seppala and his dog sled team, with his lead dog Togo, traveled 91 miles from Nome into the oncoming storm. They took the shortcut across the Norton Sound, and headed toward Shaktoolik. The temperature in Nome was a relatively warm −20 °F, but in Shaktoolik the temperature was estimated at −30 °F and the gale force winds causing a wind chill of −85 °F

Henry Ivanoff's team ran into a reindeer and got tangled up just outside of Shaktoolik. Seppala still believed he had more than 100 miles (160 km) to go and was racing to get off the Norton Sound before the storm hit. He was passing the team when Ivanoff shouted, "The serum! The serum! I have it here!"

With the news of the worsening epidemic, Seppala decided to brave the storm and once again set out across the exposed open ice of the Norton Sound. The temperature with the wind chill was −85 °F . Togo led the team in a straight line through the dark, and they arrived at the roadhouse in Isaac's Point on the other side at 8 PM. In one day, they had traveled 84 miles, averaging 8 mph. The team rested, and departed at 2 AM into the full power of the storm.

During the night the temperature dropped to −40 °F , and the wind increased to storm force (at least 65 mph.)  The team ran across the ice, which was breaking up, while following the shoreline. They returned to shore to cross Little McKinley Mountain, climbing 5,000 feet. After descending to the next roadhouse in Golovin, Seppala passed the serum to Charlie Olsen on February 1 at 3 PM.   Just a few hours later, the ice which Seppala and Togo had just traveled over broke up and was pushed out to sea by the fierce winds.

Olsen was blown off the trail, and suffered severe frostbite in his hands while putting blankets on his dogs. The wind chill was −70 . He arrived at Bluff on February 1 at 7 PM in poor shape. Gunnar Kaasen waited until 10 PM for the storm to break, but it only got worse and the drifts would soon block the trail so he departed into a headwind.

Kaasen traveled through the night, through drifts, and river overflow over the 600-foot Topkok Mountain. Balto led the team through visibility so poor that Kaasen could not always see the dogs harnessed closest to the sled. The winds were so severe that his sled flipped over and he almost lost the cylinder containing the serum when it fell off and became buried in the snow. He removed his gloves and with bare hand searched for the cylinder.  Miraculously he found it but suffered sever frost bite.

Kaasen reached Point Safety ahead of schedule on February 2, at 3 AM.  Ed Rohn believed that Kaasen and the relay was halted at Solomon, so he was sleeping. Since it would take time to prepare Rohn's team, and Balto and the other dogs were moving well, Kaasen pressed on for the remaining 25 miles to Nome, reaching Front Street at 5:30 AM.

Balto had led them through whiteout conditions, smelling the ice to stay on the trail.  He brought the team right to the post office in downtown Nome.  Kaasen untied the package and literally stumbled into the building announcing ...   "That's a d... fine dog."

Not a single ampule was broken, and the antitoxin was thawed and ready by noon.
Together, the teams covered the 674 miles  in 127 and a half hours, a world record, done in extreme subzero temperatures in near-blizzard conditions and hurricane-force winds.

The mushers knew the trail well because it was used to deliver mail and supplies. In bad weather they could wait out a storm and if the mail was late it was late. But this was different.  This was a race against time with 10,000  lives hanging in the balance. To say the least these men had heart.  It's always amazing what the human spirit can produce. If someone in Hollywood wrote this story they would say it was corny.  But guess what... it's not, it's true.

Balto and Togo were celebrated around the world and a statue of Balto was erected in Central Park in New York City.  Both dogs were preserved by taxidermy and are in a Cleveland Museum of Natural History.  Seppala went on to complete in the 1932 Winter Olympics.  Life in Alaska went back to life in Alaska.

Prior to 1925, dyphtheria killed 20,000 people a year in the U.S. The worldwide publicity the event received helped spur widespread inoculations.

The Iditarod commemorates this amazing event. 


January 27"Wild" Bill ShannonNenana to Tolovana52 mi (84 km)
January 28Edgar KallandsTolovana to Manley Hot Springs31 mi (50 km)
Dan GreenManley Hot Springs to Fish Lake28 mi (45 km)
Johnny FolgerFish Lake to Tanana26 mi (42 km)
January 29Sam JosephTanana to Kallands34 mi (55 km)
Titus NikolaiKallands to Nine Mile Cabin24 mi (39 km)
Dan CorningNine Mile Cabin to Kokrines30 mi (48 km)
Harry PitkaKokrines to Ruby30 mi (48 km)
Bill McCartyRuby to Whiskey Creek28 mi (45 km)
Edgar NollnerWhiskey Creek to Galena24 mi (39 km)
January 30George NollnerGalena to Bishop Mountain18 mi (29 km)
Charlie EvansBishop Mountain to Nulato30 mi (48 km)
Tommy PatsyNulato to Kaltag36 mi (58 km)
JackscrewKaltag to Old Woman Shelter40 mi (64 km)
Victor AnagickOld Woman Shelter to Unalakleet34 mi (55 km)
January 31Myles GonangnanUnalakleet to Shaktoolik40 mi (64 km)
Henry IvanoffShaktoolik to just outside Shaktoolik0 mi (0 km)
Leonhard SeppalaJust outside Shaktoolik to Golovin91 mi (146 km)
February 1Charlie OlsonGolovin to Bluff25 mi (40 km)
Gunnar KaasenBluff to Nome53 mi (85 km)

Seppala and Togo.

Seppala the musher