A new limited series based on the 1925 Serum Run in Alaska, hosted by Alex Stein. On this episode we tell the story of Nome, Alaska and the outbreak of a diphtheria epidemic in 1925.
Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Mushing Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.
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Nome. Even the name sounds distant and a little mysterious. There are several theories about what the name Nome means. Some say it was named by Jafet Lindenberg, one of the so-called Three Lucky Swedes, after the Nome Valley near where he was from in Norway. Never mind that Lindenberg was Norwegian and not Swedish. Everyone from Nome knows what it means for him to be a lucky Swede.
Others say it was the result of misreading a mark on a map by a British naval officer on a trip to explore the Bering Sea. A question mark, followed by the word name, was misread as sea for cape and the word gnome. Cape Nome Still others say it’s a mispronunciation of the local Anupiak word nyami, meaning where. Take your pick.
All those explanations are fanciful, a little hard to believe, far out of the ordinary for a place that’s far out of the ordinary. But no matter where the name comes from, this is far away. An outpost near the top of the world, right on the edge of the Bering Sea. No roads in, no roads out. Not much useful soil or tree cover to save you from the cold winter winds. Siberia.
is just 55 miles away. The International Dateline is out there a few miles off the coast, so some people will tell you that from Nome, you can literally see tomorrow. In 1925, supplies came in by boat from Seattle, nearly 2,500 miles and two weeks journey south. So the supplies would come in during the summer, because it was only from July through early October that the ice was clear and the ships could even get there.
The entire area is and was subject to the whim of the winters. To understand Nome, we need to go back to 1898 and the three lucky Swedes. Because that summer, Jafet Lindenberg from Norway and two Swedish immigrants, Erik Lindblom and John Brintesen, found gold on Anvil Creek. Word spread quickly, and rumors even more quickly than that.
Rumors that greatly exaggerated the amount of gold because, well, that’s what people wanted to believe. In 1899, there were suddenly 10,000 people living in Nome. By June 1900, more than a thousand people a day were arriving in Nome to seek their fortunes. At its height, more than 20,000 people lived there. Since the beach had been declared public property, you didn’t need to stake a claim to search for gold in Nome, so-
Many people would come off the boats, walk down the beach, and start searching for the nuggets they were sure were there. A few got lucky. More found little more than dust. And like any good gold rush, many found nothing of value at all. But gold rushes bring with them a need for supplies. There’s an old saying that the people who get really rich in a gold rush are the ones supplying the shovels. And in Nome in the early 1900s,
there was a seemingly limitless demand for shovels, and mining equipment, and tents. And with that demand came a demand for booze, and entertainment, and ladies of the evening. The glory days of the Wild West may have passed in the lower 48, but up in Alaska, there was still a feeling of lawlessness. So it was with great fanfare that gunslinger Wyatt Earp, best known for the gunfight at the OK Corral, moved to Nome,
and became an owner of Dexter’s Saloon. For a few years, things were hopping at what was then the northernmost town in America. And yes, there were dogs. Many residents had their own dog teams, and dogs outnumbered people in most years. The town government passed a law that’s still officially on the books, requiring dogs to wear bells in town so that they wouldn’t be hazardous to people who were out walking. At nights, the dogs would howl.
A single howl that made others join in, building to a crescendo of what locals referred to as the Malamute Chorus. And a bunch of locals figured out that the best thing was a grand dog race called the All Alaska Sweepstakes. A 408-mile trek out to candle and back through punishing landscape and crossing the Continental Divide. Twice. The first race was held in 1908.
and it was an annual event until 1917, when World War I put an end to it. Each April, Nome would bring in thousands of mushing fans, and the town billed itself as the dog capital of the world. In addition, explorers, adventurers, and those who just wanted guides for northern expeditions flocked to Nome because they knew they could find the best dogs and the best dogmen. But all booms eventually go bust.
And so it was with the Gold Rush in Nome. By 1910, the population had dropped to 2,500. There were other places to try to find gold. Warmer places. Places that were easier to reach. And then World War I threw the economy of Alaska into chaos. Without the All Alaska sweepstakes and without the prospect of gold, most who’d come for the boom years left. During boom times, there was a lot of construction, but
By 1920, many of the buildings that had gone up during the Gold Rush time were empty or falling apart. And when a big fire in 1905 and a violent storm in 1913 destroyed many of the Gold Rush era buildings, there was a feeling that there wasn’t really a strong need to rebuild them. By 1925, the population was under 1,400, reported by the local government as 975 whites.
and 455 natives or mixed-race residents. The town doctor was Curtis Welch, a 50-year-old Connecticut native who’d spent 18 years in Alaska. He was the only doctor within 100 miles, and he ran a 25-bed hospital and had four nurses working with him there. The great influenza pandemic of 1918 was still fresh in Dr. Welch’s memory.
More than 500 million people around the world were affected, and millions died, including 675,000 in the US. Welch had been powerless to do much during the flu pandemic. 72 of 80 residents in nearby Teller, Alaska, 71 miles north of Nome, died from the flu over the span of five days in November 1918. Many villages lost half their populations and some were wiped out altogether.
Quarantines were put into place, rescuers set out from Nome to remote villages, often on dog sleds. Welch himself missed the signs of the pandemic. He had put some crewmen and longshoremen under quarantine in October 1918, when they came in complaining of sore throats. But he decided after five days to lift the quarantine, thinking those crew members were just suffering from bad colds or maybe tonsillitis, but nothing serious, nothing worse.
Days later, people died, including a hospital worker. Nome government officials rushed to quarantine the entire city, but by then the flu had spread throughout northwestern Alaska. It was just six years later that patients began appearing in Nome again with bad coughs, some perhaps suffering from tonsillitis. Things got bad in the fall and early winter, but things sometimes get bad in the fall and early winter, and there didn’t seem to be any serious reason to panic.
Welch treated one little girl on Christmas Eve and prescribed bed rest for her. On December 28th, he received word that she’d died. He wanted to perform an autopsy, but her parents refused to grant permission. He wrote that deaths from tonsillitis were rare, but they did happen occasionally, so he didn’t give it too much thought. Then, in early January of 1925, two more children died after complaining of severe sore throats.
On January 20th, Dr. Welch examined Billy Barnett, a three-year-old boy who’d been admitted to the hospital a week earlier with fever, swollen glands, and a sore throat. That day, Billy had a new symptom. Gray, bloody lesions in his throat and nasal membrane. These were the symptoms of diphtheria, a bacteria sometimes referred to as the strangler. Diphtheria is an airborne bacteria that releases a toxin that makes those who have the disease extremely tired.
It weakens the immune system, and in a matter of days, lesions grow and multiply, filling the mouth, the nasal cavity, and moving down the windpipe, making it difficult and painful to breathe. Eventually, the lesions make it impossible for air to get to the lungs, and those suffering from diphtheria die of what seems to be strangulation. For centuries, doctors could do nothing to help those suffering from diphtheria.
But the good news is that medical science had made great strides and by the turn of the 20th century, an antitoxin was developed. The even better news was that Dr. Welch had some of that antitoxin and no. But there was also bad news. Dr. Welch didn’t have enough antitoxin to deal with a full-scale epidemic, and the limited amount that he had was old. Since he wasn’t 100% positive of Billy Barnett’s diagnosis, Welch decided not to give him the antitoxin.
because he was worried there might be side effects that would harm Billy in his already weakened state. Welch had no experience with diphtheria, and wasn’t sure that the lesions he’d seen were definite indications of the disease. A throat culture would have confirmed the diagnosis, but sadly, Welch also had little experience with throat cultures. And while his hospital was the best around, it had no laboratory, no facilities for incubating cultures,
and a supply of electricity that frequently failed and could never be relied upon. So, Dr. Welch and his nurses kept their suspected diagnosis secret, not wanting to create a panic in Nome. They gave Billy alternate treatments that seemed to help him for a few hours. But later that evening, Billy’s windpipe became blocked by the lesions, and Welch could do little besides try to make him comfortable as he died. Dr. Welch knew he needed fresh antitoxin and plenty of it.
native Eskimo population would be at greatest risk since they had little resistance to bacteria and viruses brought in by sailors or travelers who came to gnome on ships. Eskimos also were superstitious about the spirit of death and many worried that if someone died in their home death would spot them and claim them next. Dr. Welch worried that the native population might panic and try to flee, which would further spread the disease. When another native girl, Bessie Stanley,
had the same type of lesions. Dr. Welch injected her with the aging antitoxin on January 21, 1925. But he got to her too late, and the antitoxin wasn’t as effective as it had been. Bessie died hours later. That evening, Dr. Welch contacted Nome Mayor George Maynard, who also published the Nome Nugget, the local newspaper. Dr. Welch explained what was happening and what he feared would happen next if they couldn’t get fresh antitoxin.
In an emergency town council meeting, the council voted to implement a quarantine and appointed Emily Morgan, one of Welch’s nurses at the hospital, as quarantine nurse for Nome. Maynard printed up flyers describing the situation and urging residents to stay at home. The next day, January 22, 1925, Welch sent out two telegrams. The first went to every major city and town in Alaska and to the territorial governor, describing the situation in Nome.
The second telegram went to the US Public Health Service, the government agency in charge of producing antitoxins and vaccines. This second telegram was relatively simple, and it said in part, An epidemic of diphtheria is almost inevitable here. Stop. I am in urgent need of one million units of diphtheria antitoxin. Stop. On January 24th, Dora and Mary Stanley, sisters of Bessie Stanley, who had died three days earlier,
also died from diphtheria. Dr. Welch and nurse Emily Morgan conducted a survey of the local population and discovered 20 more confirmed cases of diphtheria and 50 more residents who were considered at serious risk. The local Board of Health called an emergency meeting. They knew that locating the antitoxin wouldn’t solve their problems. They still needed to figure out how to get it to Nome. At the meeting, Mayor Maynard proposed flying the antitoxin in by bush plane.
But it was 1925 and airplane technology was very primitive and quite limited. The only planes that were thought able to fly to Nome in the winter were World War I vintage J-1 biplanes. There were several problems with this idea. First, these planes had open cockpits and water-cooled engines, so they were not generally used in winter when temperatures would go far below freezing. Second, the actual planes in question had been dismantled for the winter.
and would have to be reassembled and tested before they could fly. Third, and most important, the two pilots who were the most expert in flying those planes were not even in Alaska at the time. Dan Sutherland, the delegate from the Alaska territory to the U.S. Congress, pushed to have inexperienced pilot Ray Darling fly the plane. The Board of Health vetoed that idea as too risky. Then, at the meeting, Board Member Mark Summers announces he has a better idea.
He pauses for a moment and the board can hear the sound of dogs howling outside in the distance. Summers, who runs the Hammond Consolidated Goldfields, a company that owns several smaller gold mining companies, including the Pioneer Gold Mining Company started by the three lucky Swedes themselves, proposes a dog sled relay. One team could start in Nome heading east, and the other could start in Nenana near Fairbanks heading west. They would meet in the middle at New Lotto.
pass the antitoxin from musher to musher, and have the team from Nome turn around and head back. In fact, Summers says, he knows the perfect man to run from Nome to Nelato and back. A man who works for Summers and who won the All Alaska Sweepstakes three years in a row. Legendary musher, Leonard Sepulah. The Board of Health unanimously votes for the dog sled relay. Now, all they need to do is locate enough antitoxin.
The call went out. Within days, the story would capture the attention of people all over the world. Men, women, and dogs would mobilize to address the urgent need of the people in Nome in what would come to be known as the 1925 Serum Run, which would test the strength and determination of all involved in ways they could not yet imagine. But all of that would come later. That wasn’t something Dr. Curtis Welch was thinking about that night. As he walked home from the Board of Health meeting,
and the sound of howling dogs spread from dog lot to dog lot, from one end of town to the other, echoing against the ice in the Bering Sea. He wasn’t thinking about any of that. For Curtis Welch, the issue was much simpler. Haunted by the deadly effects of the flu pandemic a few years earlier, and his role in making a mistake that might have caused additional deaths, Dr. Welch knew he was facing the start of a new and potentially more deadly epidemic, and the only thing he was interested in
was saving lives. And that meant finding a way to hold on until help could get there.
Next time, a new plan and the dogs start to run.