Diphtheria, Dogs, and Delivery of antitoxins (1925)

Image © Central Park, NYC

The world is desperately searching for a vaccine to fight against COVID-19. And New York City is one of the worst affected cities around the globe. Let me tell you an amazingly positive story connected to the vaccination and the Central Park of New York City.

While doing some photo research on historical archival images of global vaccination, an image of a dog suddenly stuck me. A bronzed sculpture of the dog stands in Central Park at Manhattan of New York City – currently one of the worst affected cities by COVID-19 in the world.

Balto, the name of the dog whom the Central Park is mentioned as “a bronzed hero, near the Tisch Children’s Zoo, who stands ready to accept hugs and offer rides to his admiring fans“. To know Balto (1919 – 1933), we have to go back to 1925. An outbreak of diphtheria in Alaska. The Great Race of Mercy.

On January 20, 1925, an outbreak of diphtheria occurred in remote Nome, Alaska. Dr. Curtis Welch, a physician in Nome, saw several children die of what he first thought was tonsillitis. As more children reported sore throats, he observed the white pseudomembrane of diphtheria.

Welch had only expired antitoxin because the shipment he had ordered in 1924 had not arrived. He sent a telegram requesting mail delivery of antitoxin. A hospital in Anchorage had 300,000 units of antitoxin and shipped it by train to Nenana, 674 miles from Nome. The shipment would need to travel by dog sled to reach the children of Nome.

During the winter, only dog teams could reach Nome along a path called the Iditarod Trail, which was typically used to carry mail from Anchorage. The journey of twenty teams of mushers and sled dogs from Nenana to Nome transfixed the country. The mushers battled near-record low temperatures along the way, and they had to stop periodically to warm the serum. Many dogs died during the trip. Several of the mushers suffered frostbite. During the Serum Run of 1925, the 674-mile journey was made in just six days, which normally took about a month to deliver the mails. Balto was the dog leading the team when the serum was successfully delivered to the grateful citizens of Nome.

The antitoxin reached Nome on February 2, 1925, when Welch quickly used it to treat the many sick children in his hospital. He reported that five children had died, but thought the toll might have been higher because many native Alaskans might not have reported deaths.

Weeks after delivering the life-saving serum, Balto and his team starred in the short-subject film “Balto’s Race To Nome.” The two-reel film was released in June 1925. Except for a few studio stills, no print of the film is known to exist today. In between, a dispute between owners over unpaid wages resulted in a dogs’ tour of the country’s vaudeville circuit for two years. Then, the dogs were transferred to a “dime” museum in Los Angeles, where they caught the attention of Cleveland businessman George Kimble. His mission was to save Balto and its six teammates.

Kimble struck a deal with the dog’s owner to buy them for $2,000. But Kimble had only two weeks to raise the money. Across the United States, radio broadcasts appealed for donations. Cleveland’s response was explosive. Schoolchildren collected coins in buckets; factory workers passed their hats; and hotels, stores, and visitors donated what they could. In just 10 days the headlines of Cleveland Plain Dealer read, “City Smashes Over Top With Balto’s Fund! Huskies To Be Shipped From Coast at Once!”

On March 19, 1927, Balto and six companions were brought to Cleveland and given a hero’s welcome in a triumphant parade through Public Square. The dogs were then taken to the Brookside Zoo (now the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo) to live out their lives in dignity. It was said that 15,000 people visited the dogs on their first day at the zoo.

Balto died on March 14, 1933, at the age of 14. The husky’s body was mounted and is now housed in the Cleveland Museum’s permanent collection.

And in Central Park Balto is waiting for the young visitors to get a hug. Sculpted by Frederick G. R. Roth, Balto is a popular climbing statue among Central Park’s youngest visitors—a fitting feature, given his backstory. The statue of Balto reads: “Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through arctic blizzards, from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925. Endurance… Fidelity… Intelligence.”

Source: History of vaccines | Cleveland Museum of Natural History | Central Park Conservancy

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