Sled Dog Heroes: The 1925 Serum Run

Over 100 sled dogs became famous in history when they delivered a much needed serum to stop a deadly disease.

1925 Serum Run dog sled team

In the winter of 1925, an outbreak of diphtheria in Nome, Alaska was taking the lives of young children and threatening to take hundreds of more lives if the one and only doctor couldn't get the serum needed to treat and prevent the illness. The closest large supply of serum was almost 700 miles away in Nenana. During the harsh weather conditions, the only means of transportation was the dog sled via the Iditarod Trail. The people who made this run during the winter months were the postmen, which normally took two to three weeks to complete. The serum had to get there faster, so Alaska's Territorial Governor approved a relay of the 20 best sled dog drivers and about 150 dogs.

The temperatures were at 20 year lows due to a high pressure system from the Arctic. The journey began January 27. Teams traveled day and night through rough terrain and blizzards, handing off the package of serum to fresh teams. Temperatures reached down to -50°F. Wind speeds got as high as 85 mph, causing the temperature to feel -70°F. The lifesaving serum reached Nome on February 2. The run was completed in a record 5 days and 7 hours.

All sled dogs (and mushers) were heroes. Four dogs died from the cold. Two notable dogs who survived the run were Togo and Balto, both Siberian huskies.

Seppala & Togo

Togo was the lead sled dog of Leonhard Seppala (a musher and a Siberian husky breeder). Togo was smaller than the usual size of a Siberian husky. He was sick as a puppy, was difficult and mischievous, and did not seem suited to be a sled dog. Seppala gave him away when he was six months old to be a pet dog at a house several miles from his home. A few weeks later, Togo escaped and ran back to be with Seppala. This devotion impressed Seppala, so he kept him. After much training, and problems, Togo filled the lead dog position and became one of Seppala's most treasured dogs. At the time of the serum run, Togo was 12 years old and had been a lead dog for 7 years. Seppala and Togo covered 91 miles, the longest distance of the relay and the most dangerous part of the journey. Togo died at the age of 16 in 1929. His body was stuffed and mounted, and is displayed at the Iditarod Trail Headquarters Museum in Wasilla, Alaska.

Kaasen & Balto

Balto (owned by Seppala) was the lead sled dog of Gunner Kaasen (a musher). Balto was larger than Togo but did not "cut" a racing profile. He was considered to be a scrub dog, meaning an inferior or slow-working dog. Seppala did not consider him breeding material so he had him neutered when he was six months old. Balto was a strong dog, and was used as a freighting dog at the mining company where Seppala worked - he was part of a dog team that transported heavy supplies to the miners. Balto's first chance as a lead dog was with the serum run. Kaasen and Balto covered the last 53 miles of the relay. Balto proved himself to be an excellent leader. He was able to stay on the trail in near whiteout conditions, and was credited for saving the lives of the team on more than one occasion. Balto died at the age of 14 in 1933. His body was stuffed and mounted, and is displayed at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

The publicity from the 1925 Serum Run helped spur an inoculation campaign in the US that dramatically reduced the threat of diphtheria. Since 1973, the Iditarod Trail Race has been run annually in memory of this original sled dog relay. Alaska uses the Iditarod race to promote immunization and other local public health activities.