Balto and the 1925 Diphtheria Epidemic

Today the Corona virus dominates the news. Not quite a century ago, in 1925, it was a diphtheria epidemic in Nome, Alaska that kept public health officials struggling to contain the disease and calm the public. Diphtheria threatened the lives of children and tested the endurance and ingenuity of Alaskan authorities. The closest available serum was in an Anchorage hospital, a thousand miles away, over frozen winter ground. Hospital staff could deliver the life-saving serum only as far as Nenana, still 674 miles from Nome. Siberian Husky Balto became a hero as the lead dog on the final dogsled team recruited to deliver life-saving serum to Nome.

Today we debate how to best respond to the Corona Virus while medical personnel and public officials air our options and their opinions via social media and around-the-clock news coverage. A century ago communications travelled primarily via telegraph. Harsh winter weather conditions made it impossible to deliver the necessary supplies any further the Nenana by train, plane, or ship.

Why Dogs Are Humans’ Best Friends

After numerous telegraph messages back and forth between Nome and Anchorage, health officials determined their only hope to deliver the serum, and prevent more children from dying, was to organize a dogsled relay. On January 26, 1925 hospital staff in Anchorage carefully packed the serum in canvas and shipped it overnight by train to Nenana. The first dogsled team picked it up there and started a historic relay for life.

Officials organized dogsled teams to move the package from Nenana to Nukato. From there fresh teams would carry the medicine to Nome. Organizers originally recruited dogsled racer and Siberian Husky breeder, Leonhard Seppala, to make the Nukato to Nome round trip of 630 miles. It actually required over twenty teams to move the serum from Nenana to Nome. I imagine those disease control staffers would have loved to have our 21st Century communication and transportation options available to them.

Seppala’s dog, Balto was a six-year old, neutered male in 1925. Considered an inferior Husky, he worked primarily hauling mining supplies around the Nome area. February 1 Seppala and his twelve-year old lead dog, Togo, reached the meeting station at 8 p.m., having pulled their cargo through the treacherous Norton Sound. His amazing dog team covered 84 miles in a single day, averaging eight miles an hour in temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

An All Night Run

Next Gunner Kaasen, with Balto and twelve other dogs, set out at 10 p.m., in whiteout conditions. The sled and dogs blew over once  in the strong winds. Kaasen had to dig into snow drifts to recover the precious serum cargo. With Balto in the lead, the team pushed on through the night.

Due to the dark of night and whiteout conditions, Kaasen and the team were two miles beyond the next transfer point before he realized he’d passed it. He later reported there were times he could not see the team in front of him because of the thick snow. Realizing how crucial it was to deliver the serum, Kaasen and the team pushed on rather than turn back.

They reached the next station at 3 a.m. The musher scheduled to relieve Kaasen was asleep, assuming Kaasen’s team would have stayed at the previous post waiting for the blizzard conditions to let up. Kaasen let the man sleep and, with Balto still leading, pushed on through the night.

They arrived in Nome at 5:30 a.m. February 2. Kaasen declared Balto to be a “damn fine dog” before collapsing. Balto more than proved his worth that night. Kaasen credited him with saving all their lives several times in their desperate determination to deliver the medicine.

From Hero to Hovel

By the end of February, the story of the serum relay was national news. Kaasen accepted an invitation to bring Balto and the rest of the team to Hollywood to appear in a movie about the phenomenal relay. Director Sol Lesser’s film, “Balto’s Race to Nome,” turned Balto into a national hero. For nine months the team toured the country, promoting the movie. Kaasen returned to Alaska, leaving the dogs with the tour promoter, who sold Balto and six of the other team dogs to a sideshow owner.

By 1927 Balto’s heroic efforts were old news. Largely forgotten, the dog team lived in deplorable conditions at the side show. People paid ten cents a peep to take a look at the six Siberian Huskies,   hooked up to their sled harnesses in a small, dark room. Clevelander businessman George Kimble saw them on display while doing business in Los Angeles.

One More Trip

The sideshow man offered to sell Kimble the dogs for $2,000. He didn’t have the money, but returned to Cleveland to raise the funds. Soon school children were donating their milk money and adults were passing their hats at work. Area businesses, kennel clubs and other places raised the rescue money in ten days. On March 19, 1927 Balto and his six teammates received a hero’s welcome in a parade through downtown Cleveland. The dog who led the team that delivered the life-saving serum spent his final years in the Cleveland Brookside Zoo. Today he is remembered in a display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Some details for this blog come from the website “Serum Relay of 1925” managed by Earl J. Aversano. You can read more fascinating details about the dogsled rescue operation there.

Thank you for taking time to read about how a team of dogs responded to a public health crisis a century ago. If it inspires you, why not share it with a friend? Got this from a friend? You can sign up for your own free subscription at HowWiseThen. I am always looking for leads about people making a useful contribution to our global village. If you have someone to recommend for a future HowWiseThen blog, let me know.
I have a variety of ‘thank you’ resources waiting for you at my website.


  1. Kathy, maybe I’m just feeling a bit fragile these days, but this post brought tears to my eyes; thank you for sharing the story. Heroism abounds, yes? I’m supposed to fly to Nome to give a retreat on May 19 . . . we shall see.

  2. Thank you Christine. I keep your book of devotions by where I drink my morning coffee. We all need all the encouragement we can get these days.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *