Ex Libris: The Cruelest Miles

The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic

It is difficult in modern-day America to imagine

being isolated from medication for a curable disease in the face of an epidemic, and more than 90 years ago, most Americans felt the same way. Development of an immunization for diphtheria in the 1920s removed the threat of this potentially fatal disease, and advances in motorized transportation, including airplanes, meant the new antitoxin could be delivered wherever it was needed. However, in January of 1925 in Nome, Alaska, the unthinkable happened when weather proved to still out-muscle technology. Ever man’s best friend, dogs would have to come to the rescue.

Dr. Curtis Welch, the only doctor for hundreds of miles along the Bering Sea, had ordered a fresh supply of diphtheria antitoxin earlier that summer to replace his expired supply. He did not expect to need it, but he liked to be prepared. However, when the Alameda — the last delivery boat before Nome became unreachable for the winter due to ice — arrived that fall, the fresh supply had still not arrived. Dr. Welch made a note to reorder the antitoxin in the spring.

On Jan. 20, he diagnosed the first child in Nome with diphtheria. The 3-year-old boy died the following day, and the next day a 7-year-old girl was also diagnosed with the disease and died hours later. An epidemic was imminent, and in order to keep it from raging through Nome’s population, the town council immediately issued a quarantine. Dr. Welch did the best he could with the expired antitoxin, but he desperately needed a new and abundant supply to check the disease’s progress through the town. Most susceptible were children, especially the Eskimos who, like other Native Americans, did not possess much immunity to European diseases. The mortality rate was close to 100 percent without the antitoxin.

Dr. Welch put out a national call for help, and those in the continental United States were ready to spring into action. Political leaders quickly assembled a vast supply in Seattle, but delivery to Nome would take at least two or three weeks. Meanwhile, a smaller batch was discovered in Anchorage that would suffice until the rest of the units arrived. The great question was how to transport it. Nome lies just four degrees south of the Arctic Circle and is icebound from November to July; thus, taking it by sea was out of the question. The previous February, two pilots had conducted the first winter air flight but for a much shorter distance and with warmer temperatures (planes at that time still only had open cockpits). Also, both men who had completed the expedition were in the contiguous United States at the time, and the only pilot available to fly the serum was unfamiliar with Alaska’s terrain and relatively inexperienced. Airplane engines could also be unreliable.

The only other option relied on the traditional method of Alaskan transportation — dog sleds. The serum would only last for an estimated six days in the freezing temperatures, and the journey between the two cities was usually completed in 30 days. After much debate between those lobbying for it to be carried by air and those arguing for it to go by land, authorities arranged a relay race between the state’s best dog drivers, with renowned driver Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog, Togo, to drive the longest and most difficult stretch.

In driving dog sleds, the “rule of the 40s” was the guiding principle for temperature safety. Running in temperatures exceeding 40 degrees F could cause the dogs to overheat, and facing weather below negative 40 degrees would endanger both the dogs and the driver. Much of the race to Nome was conducted in a blizzard with temperatures of negative 100 degrees and hurricane-force winds. A few dogs gave their lives in this race against death, and several of the drivers suffered from severe frostbite and hypothermia. Famously, after five and a half days, Gunnar Kaasen brought in the antitoxin on the last leg of the relay with his lead dog, Balto, who instantly became a celebrity.

This book tells the remarkable journey of the unstoppable individual men and dogs who together covered the 674 miles in 127.5 hours — a world record. Coined the “Great Race of Mercy,” this relay was the start of the commemorative Iditarod Race. The Cruelest Miles also shares many of the amazing feats of the drivers’ lead dogs long before the diphtheria epidemic: stories of their incredible leadership and anecdotes of multiple heroic rescues. This nail-biting, historical account offers an inspiring story about dogs saving the day when technology could not.