Friends of Pluto

May 17, 2011

Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo

Image : Frogstorm.com

Story Version One

February 2, 1925 – On this day a dogsled team pulled into Nome, completing a 674 mile journey across ice and snow to deliver a life-saving supply of diptheria anti-toxin.  One of the lead dogs, Balto, would became a national hero.

In 1925 Nome was a fading gold rush town with a little over a thousand residents.  In the dead of winter it was snowbound and icebound with the only link to the outside world being the Iditarod Trail, a meandering sleddog route that crosses several mountain ranges and a vast wilderness.

Dr. Curtis Welch was Nome’s only doctor, and in late December he started seeing an increase in cases of what he initially thought was tonsilitis.  It turned out to be the first cases of a diptheria epidemic.   Diptheria is an extremely contagious respiratory disease.  The tell-tale symptoms include a swollen neck, sore throat, fever and fatigue.  By January 21st, five children had died and Dr. Welch sent this telegram:

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

2 more people died and 20 more were sick .  Due to the rapid transmission of the disease, the entire population of the area was at tremendous risk, and without the ant-toxin the mortality rate was close to 100%.

With ships and planes unable to operate in the record low temperatures, it was decided that a dogsled run along the mail route from Nenana would be the only option.

20 mushers and their teams of huskies would participate in the historic relay.  The men and dogs faced horrific conditions.  Many dogs perished and many musher’s suffered frostbite as they encountered temperatures as low as 40 below zero.  There was a collision with a reindeer, a sled flipped and the serum was temporarily lost in the snow.

After 127 hours the last team, led by Gunnar Kaasen and Balto, delivered the anti-toxin to Dr. Welch.  The serum was thawed and within hours the doctor was administering doses.  Thanks to the medicine, all of Dr. Welch’s patients were cured.

The huge amount of publicity generated by the story is credited with raising awareness for inoculation campaigns that dramatically decreased the spread of diptheria worldwide.

"If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me." ~ Alice Roosevelt Longworth

Image Credit: abberkov

Story Version Two

Gunnar Kaasen and his dog Balto received fame for their roles in the rescue, but many historians claim that musher Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo were the biggest unsung heroes. 

  Seppala became the crucial figure in the delivery by dogsled of a supply of antiserum via an otherwise impassable route between Nenana and the stricken city. Seppala set out from Nome, met the driver carrying the serum from Nenana more than halfway, and returned immediately by night across Norton Sound, traveling 340 miles over treacherous sea ice and through blizzard conditions to bring the serum back. (Other relay teams involved in the delivery included that of Gunnar Kaasen who made the final leg with cull dogs of Seppala’s that he had left behind; none of the other teams made more than 53 miles of travel at most.)

The leader of the Serum Drive team had been Togo, and Sepp was outraged at the publicity given to “newspaper dog” Balto who had led the Kaasen team, feeling that the credit had been stolen from Togo who had deserved to be considered the hero of the run. Also along on the Serum run was the ageing Scotty. Sepp states that the Serum Drive was Togo’s last long run, and that in that drive he had worked his hardest and best. If the Serum Drive finished Togo, it must have been harder yet for Seppala’s old Sweepstakes leader.

A Persistent Puppy   Togo – Balto’s True Story (Born to Lead)

Full Moon and Aurora, Nome, Alaska

Image Credit: Aurora Borealis, Nome

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