While I am lucky enough to be spending a few days this week dog sledding in Maine, I got to thinking about the neurology (or at least the medicine) of mushing.
I guess most people have already heard of the famous annual Iditarod dog sled race which has become Alaska’s most popular sporting event.
However, many are unaware of the historical importance of dog sledding, and in particular the 1925 Serum run to Nome (sometimes referred to as the “Great Race of Mercy”).
In the winter of 1925 there was a diphtheria epidemic in the isolated Alaskan city of Nome. The city had 8,000 units of diphtheria antitoxin on hand, but it had all expired the previous summer. They had ordered a new supply, but the port had closed for the winter before the serum arrived. The doctors were afraid to use the expired medicine. The nearest supply of antitoxin was in Anchorage, but it might as well have been a million miles away, as the only available planes were water cooled WW1 that could not be flown in winter. A deadly epidemic was expected.
However, in a daring plan, the antioxin was moved by train from Anchorage to Nenana, and then carried another 630 miles to Nome by dog sled teams running in relay. Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog Balto arrived on Front Street in Nome with the antitoxin on February 2 at 5:30 a.m., just five and a half days later. The two became media celebrities, and a statue of Balto was erected in Central Park in New York City in 1925. However, most mushers consider Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo to be the true heroes of the run – they covered the most hazardous stretch of the route, and carried the serum 91 miles, the single farthest of any team.
A reenactment of the serum run was held in 1975 to mark the 50th anniversary of the “Great Race of Mercy,” and participants included descendants of many of the original mushers. Since 1997, the event been commemorated by bi-annual “Serum Run” from Nenana to Nome, which includes stops at villages along the way to promote childhood inoculations.