Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
During the winter of 1924, Curtis Welch – the only doctor in Nome, a remote fishing town in northwest Alaska – started noticing something strange. More and more, the children of Nome were coming to his office with sore throats.
Initially, Welch dismissed the cases as tonsillitis or some run-of-the-mill virus – but when more kids started getting sick, with some even dying, he grew alarmed. It wasn’t until early 1925, after a three-year-old boy died just two weeks after becoming ill, that Welch realized that his worst suspicions were true. The boy – and dozens of other children in town – were infected with diphtheria.
A DEADLY BACTERIA
Diphtheria is nearly nonexistent and almost unheard of in industrialized countries today. But less than a century ago, diphtheria was a household name – one that struck fear in the heart of every parent, as it was extremely contagious and particularly deadly for children.
Diphtheria – a bacterial infection – is an ugly disease. When it strikes, the bacteria eats away at the healthy tissues in a patient’s respiratory tract, leaving behind a thick, gray membrane of dead tissue that covers the patient's nose, throat, and tonsils. Not only does this membrane make it very difficult for the patient to breathe and swallow, but as the bacteria spreads through the bloodstream, it causes serious harm to the heart and kidneys. It sometimes also results in nerve damage and paralysis. Even with treatment, diphtheria kills around 10 percent of people it infects. Young children, as well as adults over the age of 60, are especially at risk.
Welch didn’t suspect diphtheria at first. He knew the illness was incredibly contagious and reasoned that many more people would be sick – specifically, the family members of the children who had died – if there truly was an outbreak. Nevertheless, the symptoms, along with the growing number of deaths, were unmistakable. By 1925 Welch knew for certain that diphtheria had come to Nome.
In desperation, Welch tried treating an infected seven-year-old girl with some expired antitoxin – but she died just a few hours after he administered it.
AN INACCESSIBLE CURE
A vaccine for diphtheria wouldn’t be widely available until the mid-1930s and early 1940s – so an outbreak of the disease meant that each of the 10,000 inhabitants of Nome were all at serious risk.
One option was to use something called an antitoxin – a serum consisting of anti-diphtheria antibodies – to treat the patients. However, the town’s reserve of diphtheria antitoxin had expired. Welch had ordered a replacement shipment of antitoxin the previous summer – but the shipping port that was set to deliver the serum had been closed due to ice, and no new antitoxin would arrive before spring of 1925. In desperation, Welch tried treating an infected seven-year-old girl with some expired antitoxin – but she died just a few hours after he administered it.
Welch radioed for help to all the major towns in Alaska as well as the US Public Health Service in Washington, DC. His telegram read: An outbreak of diphtheria is almost inevitable here. I am in urgent need of one million units of diphtheria antitoxin. Mail is the only form of transportation.
When the Alaskan Board of Health learned about the outbreak, the men rushed to devise a plan to get antitoxin to Nome. Dropping the serum in by airplane was impossible, as the available planes were unsuitable for flying during Alaska’s severe winter weather, where temperatures were routinely as cold as -50 degrees Fahrenheit.
In late January 1925, roughly 30,000 units of antitoxin were located in an Anchorage hospital and immediately delivered by train to a nearby city, Nenana, en route to Nome. Nenana was the furthest city that was reachable by rail – but unfortunately it was still more than 600 miles outside of Nome, with no transportation to make the delivery. Meanwhile, Welch had confirmed 20 total cases of diphtheria, with dozens more at high risk. Diphtheria was known for wiping out entire communities, and the entire town of Nome was in danger of suffering the same fate.
It was Mark Summer, the Board of Health superintendent, who suggested something unorthodox: Using a relay team of sled-racing dogs to deliver the antitoxin serum from Nenana to Nome. The Board quickly voted to accept Summer’s idea and set up a plan: The thousands of units of antitoxin serum would be passed along from team to team at different towns along the mail route from Nenana to Nome. When it reached a town called Nulato, a famed dogsled racer named Leonhard Seppala and his experienced team of huskies would take the serum more than 90 miles over the ice of Norton Sound, the longest and most treacherous part of the journey. Past the sound, the serum would change hands several times more before arriving in Nome.
Between January 27 and 31, the serum passed through roughly a dozen drivers and their dog sled teams, each of them carrying the serum between 20 and 50 miles to the next destination. Though each leg of the trip took less than a day, the sub-zero temperatures – sometimes as low as -85 degrees – meant that every driver and dog risked their lives. When the first driver, Bill Shannon, arrived at his checkpoint in Tolovana on January 28th, his nose was black with frostbite, and three of his dogs had died. The driver who relieved Bill Shannon, named Edgar Kalland, needed the owner of a local roadhouse to pour hot water over his hands to free them from the sled’s metal handlebar. Two more dogs from another relay team died before the serum was passed to Seppala at a town called Ungalik.
THE FINAL STRETCHES
Seppala and his team raced across the ice of the Norton Sound in the dead of night on January 31, with wind chill temperatures nearing an astonishing -90 degrees. The team traveled 84 miles in a single day before stopping to rest – and once rested, they set off again in the middle of the night through a raging winter storm. The team made it across the ice, as well as a 5,000-foot ascent up Little McKinley Mountain, to pass the serum to another driver in record time. The serum was now just 78 miles from Nome, and the death toll in town had reached 28.
The serum reached Gunnar Kaasen and his team of dogs on February 1st. Balto, Kaasen’s lead dog, guided the team heroically through a winter storm that was so severe Kaasen later reported not being able to see the dogs that were just a few feet ahead of him.
Visibility was so poor, in fact, that Kaasen ran his sled two miles past the relay point before noticing – and not wanting to lose a minute, he decided to forge on ahead rather than doubling back to deliver the serum to another driver. As they continued through the storm, the hurricane-force winds ripped past Kaasen’s sled at one point and toppled the sled – and the serum – overboard. The cylinder containing the antitoxin was left buried in the snow – and Kaasen tore off his gloves and dug through the tundra to locate it. Though it resulted in a bad case of frostbite, Kaasen eventually found the cylinder and kept driving.
Kaasen arrived at the next relay point on February 2nd, hours ahead of schedule. When he got there, however, he found the relay driver of the next team asleep. Kaasen took a risk and decided not to wake him, fearing that time would be wasted with the next driver readying his team. Kaasen, Balto, and the rest of the team forged on, driving another 25 miles before finally reaching Nome just before six in the morning. Eyewitnesses described Kaasen pulling up to the town’s bank and stumbling to the front of the sled. There, he collapsed in exhaustion, telling onlookers that Balto was “a damn fine dog.”
A LIVING LEGACY
Just a few hours after Balto’s heroic arrival in Nome, the serum had been thawed and was ready to administer to the patients with diphtheria. Amazingly, the relay team managed to complete the entire journey in just 127 hours – a world record at the time – without one serum vial damaged or destroyed. The serum shipment that arrived by dogsled – along with additional serum deliveries that followed in the next several weeks – were successful in stopping the outbreak in its tracks.
Balto and several other dogs – including Togo, the lead dog on Seppala’s team – were celebrated as local heroes after the race. Balto died in 1933, while the last of the human serum runners died in 1999 – but their legacy lives on: In early 2021, an all-female team of healthcare workers made the news by braving the Alaskan winter to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to people in rural North Alaska, traveling by bobsled and snowmobile – a heroic journey, and one that would have been unthinkable had Balto, Togo, and the 1925 sled runners not first paved the way.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.