Diphtheria is a terrible disease. It starts as a bacterial infection, which produces a toxin, which can produce a membrane that coats the inside of your mouth and throat, choking you, keeping you from swallowing or breathing. By the 1990s, it had essentially been eradicated in the West. Now, thanks to the hateful work of anti-vaccine agitators, diphtheria is coming back.
Spain has just reported its first case in 28 years. The parents of a six-year-old boy were persuaded by an activist group not to have their son vaccinated. The diphtheria killed him.
Of course, not too long ago vaccination wasn’t an option: Widespread inoculation against diphtheria didn’t begin until the 1920s. In the ’20s, diphtheria was killing 15,000 Americans every year, mostly children. Without vaccination, the only way to fight off diphtheria was with an antitoxin.
For hospitals, keeping the antitoxin on hand was a matter of life or death. In the summer of 1924, Curtis Welch — the only doctor in Nome, Alaska — noticed that his antitoxin stock was going to expire, so he placed an order for a replacement supply. Nome is just 2 degrees below the Arctic Circle; before the new antitoxin could be delivered, Nome’s harbor froze solid, signaling the start of a long and historically bitter winter.
In December of 1924, not long after the harbor froze, Dr. Welch was called to treat a seriously ill two-year-old. Welch diagnosed him as having tonsillitis. The next morning, the child was dead. In the following weeks, three more children came down with tonsillitis, and died. The children were indigenous Alaskans, and their parents refused autopsies. On January 20, a three-year-old named Bill Barnett developed lesions in his throat. Welch realized that he wasn’t dealing with tonsillitis; he was presiding over a diphtheria outbreak.
Bill Barnett, and seven-year-old Bessie Stanley, died the next day. Twenty other people had been infected. Welch had nothing to treat them with. Without antitoxin, the fatality rate would be close to 100 percent. Welch warned the mayor, who sent out an emergency telegram to every major town in Alaska, and to Washington, D.C.: “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”
Without an open harbor, shipping the serum by sea was impossible. It was the coldest winter in 20 years; Alaska’s only aircraft, three ten-year old biplanes, couldn’t hope to survive the trip north. The only option was dog sled. A relay was planned: Starting at Nenana in central Alaska — the closest rail stop — the best available dog-sled team would take the diphtheria serum to the next town, where it would be relieved by that town’s best dog team. The trip normally took 30 days. Out of doors, the antitoxin would last only six.
Twenty pounds of serum in glass vials was carefully loaded into a metal tube. On January 27, just five days after the emergency telegram, musher Bill Shannon took delivery of the serum at Nenana’s train station. It was nine o’clock at night, pitch black, and minus 50 degrees. Shannon set out immediately. When he finished the first leg of the relay, the temperature had dropped to minus 62; Shannon had hypothermia, and his face was black with frostbite. Three of his nine dogs died.
Shannon handed the serum off to Dan Green, who set out into 20-mile-an-hour winds. Green handed it off to Johnny Folger; Folger handed it off to Sam Joseph; Joseph to Titus Nikolai, Nikolai to Dan Corning, Corning to Egard Kalland, Kalland to Harry Pitka, Pitka to Bill McCarty, McCarty to Edgar Nollner, Nollner to his brother George, George Nollner to Charlie Evans. Each man braved more murderous weather than the last. Two of Charlie Evans’s dogs died; he had no choice but to take their place pulling the sled.
Evans handed the antitoxin off to Jack Nicolai, who handed it off to Victor Anagick; Anagick gave it to Myles Gonangnan, and Gonangnan gave it to Henry Ivanoff. Leonhard Seppala, one of the best mushers in Alaska, had been chosen to take the serum over the most treacherous part of the route. He and his dog team, lead by a husky named Togo, had already run 91 miles to get into position when Ivanoff delivered the antitoxin to him.
The temperature was down to minus 85 when Seppala headed out onto the shifting ice-pack that covered Norton Sound. By the time he reached the far shore, the wind was blowing at 65 miles an hour, and Sepalla still had to climb a 5,000-foot-high mountain. On the other side, he passed the serum off to Charlie Olsen.
A blizzard had started, and a telegram was sent out for Olsen to find shelter. But the lines were down, and Olsen didn’t get the message. He continued the relay through winds reaching 80 miles an hour, to hand off the serum to Gunnar Kaasen.
Kaasen delayed two hours, waiting for the wind to let up. It only got worse, and at 10 p.m., unwilling to wait any longer, he set off into the storm. The blizzard was so heavy that Kaasen couldn’t even see the huskies running in front of him. All he could do was grip the sled and put his faith in his lead dog, Balto. (Whose statue now lives in New York’s Central Park.)
Kaasen couldn’t find the next town, Solomon, in the snow, so he continued on toward Nome. The wind blew his sled off the trail, throwing the tube of antitoxin into the snow. In the pitch black, Kaasen ripped of his gloves — sacrificing his hands to frostbite — to dig through the drifts searching for it. He found it, righted his sled, and set off again.
When he arrived at the next hand-off point, the next dog team was asleep — its musher having been told that Kaasen was waiting out the storm at Solomon. By now, Nome had 27 cases of diphtheria. Kaasen was carrying all the antitoxin in Alaska — 300,000 units — which could treat only 30 patients. There wasn’t a second to spare, so instead of waiting for the next man in line to get his dog team ready, Kaasen headed back out into the storm, running the last leg of the trip himself.
Kaasen deliver the serum to Nome at 3 a.m. on February 2; the 30-day trip had been made in just five days and seven hours, through the worst imaginable conditions. The outbreak was staunched; thousands of lives were saved. Several of the dog-drivers had been severely injured. Several of the dogs were dead. All this to save total strangers from the agonies of diphtheria.
Nowadays, to save their own children from diphtheria, some parents won’t even drive to their local clinic. It boggles the mind.
— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard.