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Emily's mission: Dispensing the famous Nome serum

Mike Dunham
Montana nurse Maria LaFond is a passionate promoter of the legacy of Emily Morgan, a nurse who played a prominent role after mushers delivered diphtheria serum to Nome in 1925. She's been making appearances in Anchorage in this 1920s nurse uniform along the lines of what Morgan would have worn while on duty at the Nome hospital. The outfit won first prize in the "Best Overall" category of "Gold Rush & Period Costumes" at the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous Miners & Trappers Ball Costume Contest earlier this month. ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

Every Alaskan knows the story of the 1925 Nome Serum Run, the historic rescue mission on which the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is (loosely) based. How ice-bound Nome's only doctor diagnosed diphtheria and realized that an epidemic loomed that could wipe out the Gold Rush town. How he send out the SOS for serum and found none closer than in Anchorage, 1,000 roadless miles away.

Railroad men carried the medicine across recently laid snow-covered tracks to Nenana. There they handed the precious package to "Wild Bill" Shannon, the first musher in a relay of 20 men who, stage by stage, risked their lives in a race against death, struggling through minus-60-degree temperatures and arctic blizzards with hurricane-force winds.

Fingers froze. Faces were frostbitten. Dogs died. But five days from Nenana, Gunnar Kaasen drove his team down Front Street, handed the serum to Dr. Curtis Welch and Nome was saved!

Right?

Close, but not complete, says Maria LaFond.

"The serum still wasn't at its ultimate destination -- the patients," she says.

That vital final step in delivery was not accomplished by men and dogs, but by women, LaFond points out. Nurses risked their own lives, walking miles to reach remote huts and outlying villages, enduring the same kinds of conditions that the mushers had faced, entering quarantined zones, calming frantic, suspicious families and administering the shots.

And that's how Nome was saved.

LaFond, a traveling nurse from Montana who has been working at Providence Alaska Medical Center this winter, thinks the public should know about these frontier medicine women. And what better time than right now, during the 2011 Iditarod and Women's History Month?

She has a specific nurse in mind: Emily Morgan, who was at Dr. Welch's side in Nome. You can see her in footage re-enacting the mercy mission on YouTube under the title "Balto in news (part II)".

LaFond has researched Morgan's life. She was born to a homesteading family in El Dorado, Kan, in 1878. She graduated from nursing school in St. Joseph, Mo., worked in missions in India and as an army nurse during World War I. In 1923, the Red Cross sent her to the ultimate hardship post: Nome.

When children began dying, fevered and struggling for breath, it was Morgan who first realized how dangerous the situation was, LaFond says: "Dr. Welch didn't figure it out. He thought it was tonsillitis. But Emily had had diphtheria herself, years before, and she's the one who first recognized the symptoms."

(She would not have been the source of the Nome outbreak, however, since one is a carrier only for a few weeks after catching the disease.)

Clad in multiple layers of wool and fur, she tramped in mukluks from house to house with serum, syringes and a flashlight. Her patients were mainly Native families, not miners; it was not proper for a single woman to be alone with a man in those days. She prayed with distraught mothers and children terrified by the needle. She helped a grieving father build a coffin for his son. She gave candy as a reward to kids who took their shots.

And, after a lusty miner broke quarantine and sneaked into the Red Light district, she brought the vaccine to Nome's prostitutes.

Among her later patients was bush pilot Russel Merrill. Attempting to walk to Barrow from an abandoned plane, Merrill was found near death and brought into the village by sled. Morgan flew in from Fairbanks with Noel Wien. She kept the snowblind, malnourished and perilously fevered Merrill alive during a long flight back via Wainwright and Nome in miserable stop-and-go flying conditions. Merrill's son Robert MacLean recounted the episode in the biography of his father, "Flying Cold."

"Merrill, too weak to be moved, spent 21 hours in the plane at Kaltag under the constant attention of Nurse Morgan, as rain pelted in and mosquitoes made the situation even worse. Merrill was blue around the eyes and mouth from exposure and fever."

The plane finally reached Fairbanks, where Merrill recovered.

At the start of World War II, Morgan happened to be visiting a sister in New Zealand. Her medical experience was discovered and the Kiwis pressed her into service as an Army nurse for the second World War. She was in her 60s.

The tough prairie woman never made a big deal about her exploits but referred to herself as a "privileged instrument in the hands of fate."

Emily Morgan died in El Dorado in 1960. The Anchorage Times ran her obituary on its front page, calling her "The Angel of the Yukon."

"I believe it's time for this fearless nurse pioneer to be honored," says LaFond.

Hoping to raise interest in Morgan, LaFond has appeared all over the city dressed in a 1920s nurse uniform. She was at the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous sled dog races and the Iditarod start and restart. She talked four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey into wearing an "Emily Morgan" shoulder patch on one of his parkas and Mackey included her story on his own website.

Her vintage dress as "Emily Morgan, R.N." won the "Best Overall" category of "Gold Rush & Period Costumes" at the Miners & Trappers Ball Costume Contest on March 5.

Before she leaves town in April for her next traveling nurse assignment, she hopes to connect with anyone who may have more information about Morgan's work in Alaska.

LaFond thinks Morgan should be inducted into the Alaska Women's Hall of Fame in the next round of selections. She'd also like to see a statue of Morgan placed in the foyer of the new University of Alaska Anchorage nursing school.

But what she really wants is public acknowledgment of the nurse whose alertness, energy and courage put her at the beginning and in the last little-known chapter of Alaska's fabled "Great Race of Mercy."

"It wasn't just men and dogs," says LaFond. "Women were involved too, and Emily's name deserves to be on that list of heroes."

Archival video shot in Nome in 1925 of a re-enactment of the famous serum run

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

CONTACT MARIA LAFOND: with information or to learn more about Emily Morgan and the quest to honor the Nome nurse, e-mail abidinghearts@yahoo.com.

THE OTHER EMILY MORGAN: A footnote: Texas too has an Emily Morgan, born Emily West, whose exploits contributing to the success of the Texas Revolution are impossible to confirm with accuracy. A free woman of color, the Lone Star Republic's Emily Morgan is said to have been the inspiration for the song "The Yellow Rose of Texas." A grand hotel near the Alamo in San Antonio is named in her honor. There is no known connection to the "Angel of the Yukon."


By MIKE DUNHAM
mdunham@adn.com