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Rosalea Barker: Alaska


by Rosalea Barker

When I think of Alaska, I think of dogs. No, not that yappy she-terrier of a former Governor who bites people’s ankles so she can stay the center of attention, but real dogs. Working dogs. Dogs that save people’s lives. Like Balto, the Inuit Siberian Husky who was one of dozens that mushed the Iditarod trail back in 1925 to save the lives of people living in Nome. Today, February 20, 2011, teams will leave Nenana to travel to Nome, replicating the “serum run” as it is known. You can follow the action on their blog here, and track them on SPOT Live here.

Sadly, the tale of the serum run is as much a tale of medical misadventure and bureaucratic bungling as it is about the valiant efforts of the 20 teams who covered 674 miles (1085 km) in five-and-a-half days at a time of a year when the days are short and the nights very long.

In December, 1924, the sole medical practitioner in Nome misdiagnosed the throat problems a young Inuit boy was having as tonsillitis. The boy dies. Another three children die before Dr. Welch finally realizes he is dealing with an outbreak of diphtheria.

There are 8,000 units of diphtheria antitoxin in the hospital in Nome, but Welch is reluctant to administer it because it has expired. The one child he does give it to dies, confirming the doctor’s fears. He had ordered a new batch of serum back in the summertime, but the port at Nome had closed for winter before the health commissioner sent it. Planes are out of the question, so the decision is made to use dog sled teams.

Serum is located in Anchorage, and sent by train to Nenana, where the first of the teams picks it up on January 27. Temperatures during the serum run went as low as -70F (-57C), winds in some places reached 80 mph (129 kph), many of the dogs died, and some of the mushers suffered terrible frostbite. The last team arrived in Nome with the antitoxin on February 2. The lead dog of that team was Balto. The statue of him in NY’s Central Park is dedicated to all the dogs that made the serum run.

INSERT: image from here:

At the time of the serum run, Alaska was a territory of the United States. In 1867, Russia had sold it to the US, and the purchased land was known as the Department of Alaska and District of Alaska before becoming a territory. Following the transfer, many elders of the local Tlingit tribe maintained that Castle Hill comprised the only land that Russia was entitled to sell, but native land claims were not addressed until 1971, with the signing of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Alaska became one of the United States on January 3, 1959.

In common parlance, Alaska is usually included in the category known as the Continental United States , but is not one of the Lower 48 or the Contiguous United States. The National Geographic style guide advises using “continental United States” to include Alaska, but if you go to this General Services Administration per diem calculation webpage and choose Alaska as your state, you receive an error message: You entered a location outside the Continental United States.

Instead, you have to go to the Department of Defense per diem website, which classifies Alaska and Hawaii as OCONUS, along with all the US territories and the rest of the world. The definition of the acronym CONUS varies by department. On the GSA website it expands to “continental United States”; the Department of Defense expands it as “contiguous United States”.

Which begs the question: Who put the “fed” in “conus”? (Go on, do the anagram!)



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