Alaska’s Vaccine Deliveries by Sled Are Following a Trail Blazed in 1925

Diphtheria was ravaging the remote city of Nome, so dog sled teams came to the rescue bringing a life-saving serum.

Teams of healthcare workers have braved severe wintry weather to deliver Covid-19 vaccines to remote Alaskan villages this year. Their work echoes a similar episode almost a century ago.

Today, healthcare workers are flown by bush planes to villages across the state, and then are sometimes towed to remote clinics on sleds pulled by snowmobiles. During a diphtheria epidemic in the 1920s, a lifesaving serum was delivered on sleds pulled by dogs.

Diphtheria is a bacterial infection that attacks the nose and throat, making it difficult to breathe and swallow. In the late 19th century, an antitoxin was developed to combat it. Thanks to vaccines, diphtheria is now seldom seen in the United States.

A relay of 20 dog sled teams was organized to carry antitoxin from Nenana — the closest the antitoxin could travel by rail — to Nome. The U.S. Postal Service, which frequently used dogs to deliver mail in Alaska, joined in to help.

The musher Leonhard Seppala, who led one portion of the journey, decided to save time by traversing the precarious, frozen Norton Sound. Caught in a blinding blizzard, Seppala depended on his lead dog, a Siberian husky named Togo, who helped maneuver around dangerous expanses of water.

Next, the musher Gunnar Kaasen and his dogs, led by Balto, another Siberian husky, completed the expedition.

While the trip from Nenana to Nome typically took the postal service weeks, the relay completed it in six days, crossing more than 674 miles amid harsh conditions, delivering the medicine just a half-day before it would have expired.

The dogs that helped to carry antitoxin to Nome inspired books and movies, including the 2019 release “Togo” and the 1995 animated film “Balto.”

Balto was honored with a statue in Central Park created by Frederick George Richard Roth and dedicated on Dec. 17, 1925. According to the Central Park Conservancy, the real Balto, along with Kaasen, attended the ceremony, making Balto the only Central Park statue whose honoree was present at the unveiling.

Subscribe to our newsletter and receive lessons from history in your mailbox. Follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.

Reporter at Retro Report