The Great Race of Mercy
True West|June 2020
TRACKING DIPHTHERIA FROM NOME, ALASKA, TO TODAY.
DR. JIM KORNBERG
The place was Nome, Alaska. Dr. Curtis Welch waited anxiously for his prayers to be answered in the early morning hours of February 2, 1925.

Outside, it was 35 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The good doctor was battling an outbreak of the dreaded disease diphtheria and was awaiting the delivery of a fresh supply of diphtheria antitoxin.

In what became known as the “Great Race of Mercy,” the heroic musher Gunnar Kaasen drove his team of huskies, led by the immortal dog Balto, to answer the doctor’s prayers at 5:30 a.m., after traveling the last leg of the 674-mile trip from Anchorage. Kaasen and his fellow mushers had covered this enormous distance through ice and snow in less than five days. Today, this feat of mercy and grit is celebrated every March by the running of the famous Iditarod sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome.

All Choked Up

Dr. Welch had seen this devastating disease choke the airways of his young patients, causing death by asphyxiation. In 1925, Dr. Welch was fortunate to have received the antitoxin that was able to break the epidemic by preventing the spread of the diphtheria infection. Before the 1890s, on the other hand, the treatment options open to the frontier physician had been quite limited.

Diphtheria devastated many families in the Old West, including that of the gunfighter and acquaintance of Wyatt Earp, “Texas Jack” Vermillion, who lost his wife and two children in Missouri circa 1870.

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