Diphtheria: Inspiration for a Race Held Annually Since 1925

Diphtheria quarantine sign

Diphtheria: Inspiration for a Race Held Annually Since 1925

In the early 20th century, diphtheria was among the top 10 causes of death. Death rates, however, were dropping. An antitoxin was developed in 1890 and was used on patients the following year. It worked by neutralizing the toxins produced by the Corynebacterium diphtheriae bacterium.

Sometimes the antitoxin, which was taken from horses, was contaminated and caused illness. This led to a push to regulate pharmaceuticals and also for the development of a vaccine.


A house under quarantine for diphtheria
A house under quarantine for diphtheria

Diphtheria is caused by bacteria and is spread from person to person.

Symptoms include:

  • Coughing
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Headache
  • A membrane covers throat

The membrane also can cover the esophagus and lungs. People who die of diphtheria are literally strangled to death by their own bodies. In the late 19th century, tracheotomies began being used to help sufferers breathe.

Disease complications include heart damage.

Great Race for Mercy

The great race to get diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, Alaska, before it was too late
The great race to get diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, Alaska, before it was too late

In the winter of 1925, a diphtheria outbreak struck Nome, Alaska. The town was cut off from the rest of the territory by winter ice.

The area’s only doctor was low on antitoxin because his supply had expired and had not been replenished before winter set in.

Several children grew ill, and a handful died. The area’s Native Americans had no natural resistance to the disease. It was feared many more would die. Nome needed more antitoxin or it would have an epidemic on its hands.

A telegram went out requesting antitoxin. The winter ice meant antitoxin could not be delivered via road or boat. It could only come one way – via sled dog.

A relay of 20 sleds raced against time and the weather, but successfully delivered the serum on Feb. 20.

The event is commemorated annually with the Iditarod Sled Dog Race.

Famous Deaths

A diphtheria quarantine sign
A diphtheria quarantine sign

Diphtheria claimed the lives of many in the Victorian and Edwardian eras with a death rate of up to 10 percent.

Some notable people who died of the disease before 1920 include:

  • Queen Victoria’s daughter, Alice, and her granddaughter, Marie
  • President Grover Cleveland’s daughter “Baby” Ruth

Today, thanks to vaccination, diphtheria cases are fairly uncommon, limited to a few thousand cases annually in the United States.


Updated: 26 October 2020
Melina Druga
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Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.
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