At first, Doctor Welch was sure it was tonsillitis. No one else in any of the surrounding villages was displaying any symptoms: fever; sore throat; exhaustion. But by the next morning, the two-year old child was dead.
Upper respiratory infections started to appear in more children over the next month. It would last from a few days to a few weeks and disappear. But then another child died. His mother wouldn’t allow an autopsy despite the massive swelling on his neck.
When a third child died a few weeks later, and then a fourth, Doctor Welch was finally able to confirm what he’d feared worst. The grayish lesions on the throat and nasal membranes pointed only to one thing.
A lot of far-reaching events occurred on February 2, 1925: a 6.2 earthquake rocked the northeastern seaboard from Quebec to Virginia; the French government met to renew its suppression of the Vatican Embassy; crowds packed theatres to see the first feature-length stop-motion film, “The Lost World”; and the American delegation to the League of Nations prepared its speech to propose action on the worldwide opium trade. All of these happenings would impact upon millions of people around the globe for many years to come. But in tiny Nome, Alaska, population 1,500, they were just waiting on the mail. With temperatures across Alaska dipping down to −70 °F that were accompanied by blizzards and hurricane-force winds though, it wasn’t likely to arrive at their isolated village in time.
At 5:30 am, Doctor Welch’s heart skipped at the sound of barking dogs on Front Street.
The relay team of 20 mushers and 150 sled-dogs had heroically covered 627 miles in just 127 hours to bring the first batch of antitoxin from Fairbanks to Nome via the Iditarod Trail, narrowly averting a diphtheria epidemic.