During a diphtheria outbreak in 1925, teams of sled dogs saved lives by transporting life-saving serum through harsh arctic conditions to Nome, Alaska. The most famous of these dogs was a husky named Balto.
A Frozen Town
Imagine living in a remote town landlocked by ice, in a time where communication was limited to the radio telegraph and the nearest train was more than 600 miles away. In this town, where temperatures dropped way below freezing, your most reliable form of transportation was a sled pulled by dogs.
This was life in Nome, Alaska in 1925. To add to the harsh, unforgiving climate, the small town’s only doctor had just diagnosed diphtheria in a patient. A highly contagious disease, diphtheria would be especially dangerous to the local Inuit who had only recently recovered from a measles outbreak. Fortunately, effective treatment existed in a life-saving serum. Unfortunately, this serum was a thousand miles away in Seattle.
An Extremely Contagious Killer
Diphtheria is a bacterial infection spread through respiratory fluids like coughing and sneezing. The bacteria that cause diphtheria emit a toxin that causes weakness, fever, sore throat, swollen glands around the neck, and destroys respiratory tissue. This dead tissue then forms a thick, grey pseudomembrane that blocks airways, making swallowing and breathing painful and difficult. If the toxin enters the bloodstream, it will also cause serious damage to the heart, kidneys, and nerves. Other complications include nerve damage, paralysis, and pneumonia. About 10% of victims will die.
Today, diphtheria is prevented by vaccination and is now rare in countries with sophisticated healthcare systems like the USA. However, this was not always the case. In 1925 Nome, diphtheria quickly spread among its residents, who were likely living in very close quarters to stay away from the cold.
A Dog Breed with Exceptional Prowess
The Siberian Husky is not your average dog breed. Developed thousands of years ago by the Chukchi people of Siberia, they had been used for transportation and companionship for generations, and were highly respected in Chukchi culture for their hardiness. The breed remains beloved today.
Huskies are unique in that they can run seemingly forever. In fact, in terms of distance running, huskies will outrun every other animal. (Interestingly, humans are in second place, thanks to our unique ability to sweat). Unlike most mammals, huskies can change their metabolism to burn fat and protein without glycogen. This allows them to run for extremely long periods, and they express similar vitals when they finish a journey. They also don’t require extensive downtime to recover.
A Town Saved
The closest train station to Nome was in the town of Nenana. Between Nenana and Nome was 674 miles of treacherous terrain. The two towns were connected by the Iditarod Trail, which becomes the only route of transport during the winter season. If you needed to a package to be delivered from Nenana to Iditarod, it would take approximately a month. The package would be passed from dog sled team to dog sled team in an unbroken relay until it got to you. In 1925, the package that required delivery was the life-saving diphtheria serum, and it was transported to Nenana in a mere 6 days. This meant dog sled teams traveled, on average, 6-9 miles an hour.
Leonard Seppala and his lead dog Togo were responsible for perhaps the most dangerous leg of the race. Today, their contribution remains overshadowed by Balto’s. Unlike Balto, Togo was a more experienced sled dog and was able to safely lead his team across the frozen ice of Norton Sound just three hours before it broke.
Musher Gunnar Kaasen and his team, led by Balto, completed the last, critical leg of this relay. At the time, Balto was an inexperienced team leader, and if Kaasen had anticipated the stormy journey they were about to embark upon, he may not have chosen him as lead dog. However, Balto quickly proved his worth. The team endured vicious attacks from Mother Nature; at one point, Balto refused to go forward, saving the team from freezing in the Topkok River. At another point in the journey, the sled and team were lifted off the ground by an extremely powerful gust of wind.
Balto’s team had originally been assigned the second-to-last leg of the relay, but when they arrived at their destination, the next musher was sound asleep. So, they decided to mush the rest of the way to Nome, making the length of their journey total to around 53 miles.
The dogs were lauded as heroes around the world. Unfortunately, after a series of disputed financial dealings between Kaasen and filmmaker Sol Lesser, who produced a documentary with the sled dogs, Kaasen had no choice but to tour a vaudeville circuit with his dogs to make ends meet. Two years later, Balto was found in inhumane conditions at a “dime” museum by a businessman named George Kimble. Kimble, who had sympathized with the dogs’ heroic story, was rightfully outraged. To buy and rescue the dogs, he had two weeks to come up with $2000, a lot of money at the time.
Thanks to fervent advertising, the money was quickly raised by donors touched by Balto’s story. Kimble was able to bring Balto and six other dogs back to Cleveland, where they lived the rest of their retirement in better conditions at the Brookside Zoo.
Balto died in 1933, aged 14. His body was taxidermied and remains displayed today at the Cleveland Museum of National History. A statue of Balto was erected in Central Park in New York City to honor the serum run, with Balto himself present for the unveiling.
The heroic story of Balto and the “Great Race of Mercy” remains an inspiring tale of cooperation between humans and dogs. Today, “The Iditarod” is a race of over a thousand miles between Anchorage and Nome, undertaken by enthusiast mushers and their dogs. To learn more about Balto, you can refer to the Cleveland Museum of National History brochure here.