Emily Morgan and the Serum Run of 1925


Just this year, Alaskans inducted Emily Morgan into their Women’s Hall of Fame for her achievement in the area of health and community service. This morning, I wanted to write a blog post about the Iditarod and the Serum Run of 1925. When I began, I did not know anything about Emily Morgan. A few hours later, I feel like I know enough about this woman share her story as my way to write about the Serum Run.

I built Emily’s backstory via Wikipedia, the Iditarod website, information that has been compiled by a major Emily fan, and Ancestry.com. Born in 1878 in what is now Leon, Kansas, Emily was second oldest of nine Morgan children. Her desire to be a nurse had to wait until she could earn the money to pay her own way to nursing school. She kept at it, and in 1905, twenty-seven year old Emily travelled to St. Joseph, Missouri and started to learn how to be a nurse. Three years later she began her nursing career in St. Joseph, but eventually went back to Kansas to be Wichita’s first public health nurse.

When World War I broke out, Emily was sent to care for soldiers in France. Emily loved traveling and learning about new places and when the war was over, she wanted to do missionary work. She could not, however, leave her widowed father. At his death in 1923, Emily took an offer to travel to Alaska.

Emily’s Alaskan assignment took her to Nome, a city about as north as you can go without being in the Arctic circle. Her patients were the 10,000 settlers and native Alaskans spread throughout the vastness. When she wasn’t working at the small community hospital in Nome, she travelled throughout the region to care for those who needed her.

Emily and four other public health nurses supported the one physician in the territory. In 1924, that physician ordered diphtheria antitoxin because his supply had expired. Unfortunately, before the supply could get there, the port froze.

When the first child got sick and died at the end of 1924, Dr. Welch thought it was due to tonsillitis. As more children got sick and died, it became clear that it was not tonsillitis, but the deadly diphtheria virus that was killing. Emily Morgan understood the disease well as she had had the disease herself years before. Because of her history, she was chosen to be the nurse to administer to the sick.

The story of the Serum Run is that Dr. Welch put in a desperate call for antitoxin. The only way to get it to Nome, though, was via a train to the furthest possible point and then dogsled. The other option was to  fly the antitoxin, but that choice was scrapped when all attempts to put something up in the brutal cold, failed.

Alaska’s governor ordered a dog relay set up that would include the best mushers of the postal service. They would travel day and night in the brutal cold to deliver the serum to Nome, 674 miles away. In blizzard conditions, hurricane strength winds, and little or no visible trail, they made the trip in an incredible 127 hours. Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog, Balto pushed through the final leg. When the serum was handed off to Dr. Welch, Emily Morgan got to work traveling to administer the anti-toxin to the quarantined. Because of the work to get anti-toxin to the community, an epidemic that had the potential to kill up to 10,000 only was fatal to about 100.

Emily Morgan stayed in Nome for another thirteen years. Seventy-eight years after she helped to save the people of Nome, she was inducted into the state’s Hall of Fame.