Eamonn McCann: On the Alaskan sled dogs that changed the way people viewed vaccines
Against all odds, in 1920s Alaska, a pack of huskies delivered a batch of vaccines to the local Nome community. It was a remarkable saga that changed the way people viewed medical innovation.
What surprised me the most about the Covid pandemic is that people I thought were well-fed dudes turned out to be tinfoil hatters.
I remember coming home from school a long time ago to find about twenty people huddled silently outside Meenan’s, two doors down from our house. Christine had passed away. She was about 13 years old, black hair in ringlets down to her shoulders. His death was not a complete surprise. We all knew she had diphtheria.
You don’t hear much about diphtheria these days. Few will keep the memory of it haunting their homes. But we knew it all back then, or thought we knew it, and it was terrifying. Every once in a while you would hear silently that a local boy or girl had caught diphtheria and died. Parents said prayers to ward off diphtheria.
A vaccine invented in the 1880s will gradually defeat the disease. By the start of this century, diphtheria had been virtually eliminated. But progress had not been smooth everywhere.
In 1924, 28-year-old Curtis Welch, the only doctor in the small town of Nome, Alaska, of 2,000 people, two degrees south of the Arctic Circle, a maximum winter temperature well below zero, noticed the start of a trickle of death from diphtheria. The city was totally isolated. Welch knew the calamity was almost upon them. Three Inuit children were dead, other children were sick. The need for a vaccine was desperate and desperately urgent.
But the sky dome was solid with ice. Planes were grounded. The nearest railhead to Nome was at Nenana, 674 miles away. The only way in or out was by dog sled which took 20-25 days which they certainly didn’t have.
A shipment of vaccine was put on a train in Anchorage and rushed to Nenana, to be picked up by musher Leonhard Seppala with a 20-person pack, his lead husky Togo in the front. They set off with a package of vaccine units wrapped in layers of bear skin, running through the frozen wilderness, blinded by the blizzard, putting all their faith in their dogs driving on the endless ice, climbing 5,000 feet to cross McKinley Mountain, descending to the small settlement of Golovin where Seppala passed the vaccine on to Gunnar Kaasen, whose lead dog Balto guided the pack the last few miles to Nome. Traveling nonstop, the mushers and dogs had done it in five and a half days. All arrived more dead than alive. They saved the city. It would be underestimating their achievement to call it epic.
Radio was in its infancy as a means of mass communication. The story, perfectly set for a romantic feel, was the headline element and aired in tones of high excitement on every station in North America and beyond. The coverage gave a huge boost to vaccine awareness, allayed doubts about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines in general, changed the way we, or most of us anyway , let’s look at medical innovation.
The publicity spurred the first massive inoculation campaign, first in the United States and then throughout the rest of the world, beginning the dramatic reduction in the threat of diphtheria which in our time has resulted in the liberation of mankind from another deadly threat.
A statue of Balto was commissioned by the New York City Council from Frederick Roth, one of the most famous American artists of the time. Balto was brought to New York for the unveiling.
In 2011, Togo was named by Time magazine as “the most heroic animal in American history”.
Last year, Disney released Togo, a bio-photo of Togo and Sappalo, directed by Ericson Core.
Another thing about Nome is that it was the settlement of the 1960 adventure film North To Alaska, directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Stewart Granger, John Wayne, Capucine, Ernie Kovacs and Fabian.
The film evokes Nome at its height, during the Alaskan Gold Rush of the 1890s, when its population swelled from around a thousand to 25,000 in a single summer, a savage melee of fortune hunters converging in bright-eyed chaos. But all the gold in the ground was mined in a few years. The influx reversed as quickly as it had happened, leaving Nome a scattering of abandoned shacks.
It would be a quarter of a century before Nome returned to the world’s attention. The Togo and Balto saga made the city a minor tourist attraction. The more recent fashion for adventure vacations has further bolstered its fortunes.
The film’s theme song has become the city’s anthem. “I’ll build for my lover/A honeymoon house/Below the old white mountain/Just a little southeast of Nome/Where the river meanders/Big nuggets they find/North to the ‘Alaska/We’re going north, the rush is on.
Well worth a listen. Think of Togo and the Balto as you do.
Balto’s statue today stands on the main path leading to New York’s Central Park Children’s Zoo.
He’s a miracle dog, made of solid stone but able to piss on any anti-vaxxer that lies within reach of his base.