January 12, 1967 Frozen

“I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country”. – Benjamin Franklin

The human brain is an awesome thing. Weighing in at about 3lbs, the organ is comprised of something like 86 billion neurons, each made up of a stoma or cell body, an axon to take information away from the cell, and anywhere between a handful and a hundred thousand dendrites bringing information in. Chemical signals transmit information over minute gaps between neurons called synapses, about 1/25,000th to 1/50,000th of the thickness of a sheet of paper.

Signal+Transmission+Dendrites+Cell+body+Nucleus+SynapseThere are roughly a quadrillion such synapses, meaning that any given thought could wend its way through more pathways than there are molecules in the known universe. This is roughly the case, whether you are Stephen J. Hawking, or Forrest Gump.

For all of this, the brain cannot store either oxygen or glucose (blood sugar), meaning that there’s about 6 minutes after the heart stops, before the brain itself begins to die.

Legally, brain death occurs at “that time when a physician(s) has determined that the brain and the brain stem have irreversibly lost all neurological function”. Brain death defines the legal end of life in every state except New York and New Jersey, where the law requires that a person’s lungs and heart must also have stopped, before that person is declared legally dead.

Clearly there is a gap, a small span of time, between the moment of legal death and a person’s permanent and irreversible passing. So, what if it were possible to get down to the molecular level and repair damaged brain tissue.  For that matter, when exactly does such damage become “irreversible”?

“Information-theoretic death” is defined as death which is final and irreversible by any technology, apart from what is currently possible given contemporary medical methodologies.  For some, the gap between current legal and clinical definitions of death and the truly irretrievable, is a source of hope for some future cure.

cryonicsThe Alcor Life Extension Foundation, the self-described “world leader in cryonics, cryonics research, and cryonics technology” explains “Cryonics is an effort to save lives by using temperatures so cold that a person beyond help by today’s medicine can be preserved for decades or centuries until a future medical technology can restore that person to full health”.

The practice is highly controversial, and not to be confused with Cryogenics, the study of extremely low temperatures, approaching the still-theoretical cessation of all molecular activity.  Absolute zero.

The Cryogenic Society of America, Inc. includes this statement on its home page: “We wish to clarify that cryogenics, which deals with extremely low temperatures, has no connection with cryonics, the belief that a person’s body or body parts can be frozen at death, stored in a cryogenic vessel, and later brought back to life. We do NOT endorse this belief, and indeed find it untenable”.

The modern era of cryonics began in 1962, when Michigan College physics professor Robert Ettinger proposed that freezing people may be a way to reach out to some future medical technology.

The Life Extension Society, founded by Evan Cooper in 1964 to promote cryonic suspension, offered to preserve one person free of charge in 1965. Dr. James Hiram Bedford was suffering from untreatable kidney cancer at that time, which had metastasized to his lungs.

James Bedford
Dr. James Hiram Bedford

Bedford became the first person to be cryonically preserved on January 12, 1967, frozen at the boiling point of liquid nitrogen, −321° Fahrenheit, and sealed up in a double-walled, vacuum cylinder called a “dewar”, named after Sir James Dewar, the 19th century Scottish chemist and physicist best known for inventing the vacuum flask, and for  research into the liquefaction of gases.

Fifty-one years later, cryonics societies around the world celebrate January 12 as “Bedford Day”.  Dr. Bedford has since received two new “suits”, and remains in cryonic suspension, to this day.

Advocates experienced a major breakthrough in the 1980s, when MIT engineer Eric Drexler began to publish on the subject of nanotechnology. Drexler’s work offered the hope that, theoretically, one day injured tissue may be repaired at the molecular level.

Cryonics1-640x353In 1988, television writer Dick Clair, best known for television sitcoms “It’s a Living”, “The Facts of Life”, and “Mama’s Family”, was dying of AIDS related complications. In his successful suit against the state of California, “Roe v. Mitchell” (Dick Clair was John Roe), Judge Aurelio Munoz “upheld the constitutional right to be cryonically suspended”, winning the “right” for everyone in California.

The decision failed to make clear who was going to pay for it.

As to cost, the Cryonics Institute (CI) website explains, “A person who wishes to become a Lifetime CI Member can make a single membership payment of $1,250 with no further payment required. If a new member would rather pay a smaller amount up front, in exchange for funding a slightly higher cryopreservation fee later on ($35,000), he or she can join with a $75 initiation fee, and pay annual dues of only $120, which are also payable in quarterly installments of $35”.

Ted Williams went into cryonic preservation in 2002, despite the bitter controversy that split the Williams first-born daughter Bobby-Jo Williams Ferrell, from her two half-siblings John-Henry and Claudia. The pair were adamant that the greatest hitter in baseball history wanted to be preserved to be brought back in the future, while Ferrell pointed out the will, which specified that Williams be cremated, his ashes scattered off the Florida coast.

teds_new_will_072502The court battle produced a “family pact” written on a cocktail napkin, which was ruled authentic and allowed into evidence. So it is that Ted Williams’ head went into cryonic preservation in one container, his body in another.

The younger Williams died of Leukemia two years later, despite a bone marrow donation from his sister. John-Henry joined his father, in 2004.

Walt Disney has long been rumored to be in frozen suspension, but the story isn’t true. After his death in 1966, Walt Disney was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

FranklinIn April 1773, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to Jacques Dubourg. “I wish it were possible”, Franklin wrote, “to invent a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant; for having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence, I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But…in all probability, we live in a century too little advanced, and too near the infancy of science, to see such an art brought in our time to its perfection”.

Maybe so but, for the several hundred individuals who have plunked down $25,000 to upwards of $200,000 to follow Dr. Bedford into cryonic suspension, hope springs eternal.

June 24, 1374 Dancing Plague

There was a major outbreak of St. Vitus’ Dance on June 23, 1374. The population writhed through the streets of Aachen, screaming about visions and hallucinations, until they collapsed.  There they continued to tremble and twitch on the ground, too exhausted to stand. 

A legend of the medieval Christian church had it that, if anyone provoked the wrath of Saint Vitus, the Sicilian martyred in 303AD, he would send down plagues of compulsive dancing.  One of the first outbreaks of St. Vitus’ Dance occurred sometime in the 1020s in Bernburg, Germany. 18 peasants disturbed a Christmas Eve service, singing and dancing around the church.

In a story reminiscent of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a large group of children jumped and danced all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt in 1237. A distance of nearly thirteen miles.

In 1238, 200 people jumped, twitched and convulsed on a bridge over the River Meuse, until it collapsed. The survivors were taken to a nearby Chapel of St. Vitus, the Patron Saint of epileptics.  Many would not be fully restored to health, until September.

dancing-plague

There was a major outbreak of St. Vitus’ Dance on June 23, 1374. The population writhed through the streets of Aachen, screaming about visions and hallucinations, until they collapsed.  There they continued to tremble and twitch on the ground, too exhausted to stand.

Most outbreaks coincided with periods of extreme hardship, involving between dozens and tens of thousands of individuals.

The dancing mania quickly spread throughout Europe, spreading to Cologne, Flanders, Franconia, Hainaut, Metz, Strasbourg, Tongeren and Utrecht. Further outbreaks were reported in England and the Netherlands.

One Frau Troffea began to dance in a street in Strasbourg in July 1518, going at it somewhere between four to six days. 34 joined in within the week.  Within the month there were 400 more. Many of these people actually danced themselves to death, succumbing to heart attack, stroke, or exhaustion.

Reactions varied. Some thought those suffering from St. Vitus’ Dance were possessed by the devil. Others hired bands, to play along.  Some even built dance floors to contain the phenomenon.

dancing_plague

There were no fewer than seven distinct outbreaks of the dancing plague during the medieval period, and one in Madagascar as late as 1840.  Even today there is little consensus about what caused it.

Some have blamed “St Anthony’s Fire”, the toxic and psychoactive fungus Claviceps purpurea, or ergot, often ingested with infected rye bread.  Symptoms of ergot poisoning are not unlike those of LSD, and include nervous spasms, psychotic delusions, spontaneous abortion, convulsions and gangrene resulting from severe vasoconstriction.

Dancing PlagueOthers believe such outbreaks to be evidence of Sydenham’s chorea, a disorder characterized by rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements primarily affecting the face, hands and feet and closely associated with a medical history of Rheumatic fever.  Particularly in children.

A third theory describes the phenomenon as some kind of mass psychosis, brought on by starvation. disease and the Black Death, the Bubonic Plague.

Today such episodes seem quaint, even amusing.  These people were dealt a pandemic about which they understood nothing, a calamity which killed an estimated 75 to 100 million, at a time the total world population was some 450 million.

May 2, 1939 Lucky Man

The Yankees were in Detroit on May 2 when Gehrig told manager Joe McCarthy “I’m benching myself, Joe”. It’s “for the good of the team”. The Iron Horse’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games, had come to an end.

The Lane Tech high school baseball team was at home on June 26, 1920.  10,000 spectators had assembled to watch the game at Cubs Park, now Wrigley Field.  New York’s Commerce High was ahead 8–6 in the top of the 9th, when a left handed batter hit a grand slam out of the park.  No 17 year-old had ever hit a baseball out of a major league park before, and I don’t believe it’s happened, since. It was the first time the country heard the name Lou Gehrig.

GehrigCUGehrig was pitching for Columbia University against Williams College on April 18, 1923, the day that Babe Ruth hit the first home run out of the brand new Yankee Stadium. Though Columbia would lose the game, Gehrig struck out seventeen batters to set a team record.

The loss didn’t matter to Paul Krichell, the Yankee scout who’d been following Gehrig. Krichell didn’t care about the arm either, as much as he did that powerful left-handed bat. He had seen Gehrig hit some of the longest home runs ever seen on several eastern campuses, including a 450′ home run at Columbia’s South Field that cleared the stands and landed at 116th Street and Broadway.

NY Giants manager John McGraw persuaded a young Gehrig to play pro ball under a false name, Henry Lewis, despite the fact that it could jeopardize his collegiate sports eligibility. Gehrig played only a dozen games for the Hartford Senators before being found out, and suspended for a time from college ball. This period, and a couple of brief stints in the minor leagues in the ’23 and ’24 seasons, were the only times Gehrig didn’t play for a New York team.

Gehrig started as a pinch hitter with the NY Yankees on June 15, 1923. He came into his own in the ‘26 season.  In 1927 he batted fourth on “Murderers’ Row”, the first six hitters in the Yankee’s batting order: Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri.

He had one of the greatest seasons of any batter in history that year, hitting .373, with 218 hits: 52 doubles, 18 triples, 47 home runs, a then-record 175 RBIs, and a .765 slugging percentage. Gehrig’s bat helped the 1927 Yankees to a 110–44 record, the American League pennant, and a four game World Series sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

He was the “Iron Horse”, playing in more consecutive games than any player in history. It was an “unbreakable” record, standing for 56 years, until surpassed in 1995 by Cal Ripken, Jr. Gehrig hit his 23rd and last major league grand slam in August 1938, a record that would stand until fellow Yankee Alex Rodriquez tied it in 2012.

Lou Gehrig collapsed in 1939 spring training, going into an abrupt decline early in the season. The Yankees were in Detroit on May 2 when Gehrig told manager Joe McCarthy “I’m benching myself, Joe”. It’s “for the good of the team”.  McCarthy put Babe Dahlgren in at first and the Yankees won 22-2, but that was it.  The Iron Horse’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games, had come to an end.

Sports reporter James Kahn wrote: “I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean. I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing”.

Gehrig left the team in June, arriving at the Mayo Clinic on the 13th. The diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) was confirmed six days later, on June 19.  It was his 36th birthday. It was a cruel prognosis: rapidly increasing paralysis, difficulty in swallowing and speaking, and a life expectancy of fewer than three years.Ruth and Gehrig

Gehrig briefly rejoined the Yankees in Washington, D.C. He was greeted by a group of Boy Scouts at Union Station, happily waving and wishing him luck. Gehrig waved back, but he leaned forward to a reporter. “They’re wishing me luck”, he said, “and I’m dying.”

LouGehrigDay, 1939Gehrig appeared at Yankee Stadium on “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day”, July 4, 1939.  He was awarded trophies and other tokens of affection by the New York sports media, fellow players and groundskeepers.  He would place each one on the ground, already too weak to hold them.   Addressing his fans, Gehrig described himself as “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth”.

Henry Louis Gehrig died on June 2, 1941, at the age 37.

I drove by Yankee Stadium back in 2013, the week after the Boston Marathon bombing.  The sign out front said “United we Stand”.  With it was a giant Red Sox logo.  That night, thousands of Yankees fans interrupted a game with the Arizona Diamondbacks, to belt out Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” a staple of Red Sox home games since 1997.

I thought about Lou Gehrig.  I’ve always been a Boston guy myself, I think I’m required by Massachusetts state law to hate the Yankees.   But seriously.  What a Class Act.

April 12, 1955 Conquering Polio

Poliomyelitis tended to come out in the summer, disproportionately effecting children and young adults.

When I was a boy, I once asked my mother what polio was.  At the time, I didn’t understand the expression on her face.  What I saw that day, was her realization that her children would never have to fear a plague that had terrified her generation and those before it.

Imagine the impact of the AIDS virus. Now, instead of the well understood vectors by which that virus is transmitted, imagine all the terrifying finality of that disease combined with the randomness of the common cold.Wheelchair

The first major polio epidemic in the United States appeared in Vermont, when 132 cases were diagnosed in 1894. A larger outbreak killed 6,000 New York City residents in 1916, with over 27,000 cases diagnosed.

Poliomyelitis tended to come out in the summer, disproportionately effecting children and young adults. 58,000 cases were reported in the 1952 epidemic alone, 3,145 of them died and another 21,269 left with mild to disabling paralysis.

A President of the United States suffered from polio, as a younger man. The press did their best to treat the matter with delicacy, but the disease left him able to stand only with great pain and difficulty, dependent on a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Others were doomed to 800lb monstrosities called “iron lungs”, seven-foot long, “negative pressure ventilators” which reproduced the movements of breathing.  The Smithsonian Institution estimated that 1,200 Americans were dependent on iron lungs in 1959.  Lattimore, North Carolina resident Martha Mason contracted polio at age 11, and spent 61 years in an iron lung before her passing in 2009.

Today, modern “biphasic” ventilators (alternating negative/positive pressure) are worn like the cuirass of the conquistadors, all but replacing the iron lung.  As of 2014, there were only ten individuals left, living their lives in one of the things.

Iron Lung

Early efforts to develop a vaccine, proved fruitless.  One New York University study produced no immunity whatever, at the cost of nine dead children.  Other vaccine trials used “volunteers” at state mental institutions.

Jonas Edward Salk was born on October 28, 1914, the son of Jewish immigrants of Irish descent. Daniel and Dora (Press) Salk were not themselves formally educated, but the Jonas-Salk-2couple kept their kids focused on school.

Salk attended City College of New York and New York University School of Medicine, taking the road less traveled on graduation from Med School. Instead of becoming a practicing physician, Salk went into medical research.

Salk accepted an appointment to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1947, the following year beginning a project funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which later became the March of Dimes. The grant was funded to determine the number of polio types, but Salk took it several steps further. He saw it as an opportunity to develop a vaccine.

It’s not widely known that the American Revolution took place during a smallpox pandemic. George Washington himself was a proponent of vaccinating, which, as with rabies, was always done with live virus.Polio Trials

Live virus vaccination carries obvious risks, and Dr. Salk was interested in the way the body developed antibodies to killed virus. He and his team completed lab trials in 1954, when they injected themselves and a number of volunteers with inert virus. Having had no ill effects, they began field trials a short time later.

Field trials of Dr. Salk’s vaccine were some of the most extensive in history. 20,000 physicians and public health officials were involved in the trial, along with 64,000 school personnel, 220,000 volunteers, and over 1,800,000 school children.

News of the vaccine’s success was announced on April 12, 1955, and Jonas Salk was hailed as a miracle worker. David Oshinsky, history professor at New York University and author of Polio: An American Story, tells a story about that day. “The public was horribly and understandably frightened by polio,” he wrote. “There was no prevention and no cure. Everyone was at risk, especially children. There was nothing a parent could poliodo to protect the family. I grew up in this era. Each summer, polio would come like The Plague. Beaches and pools would close — because of the fear that the poliovirus was waterborne. Children had to stay away from crowds, so they often were banned from movie theaters, bowling alleys, and the like. My mother gave us all a ‘polio test’ each day: Could we touch our toes and put our chins to our chest? Every stomach ache or stiffness caused a panic. Was it polio? I remember the awful photos of children on crutches, in wheelchairs and iron lungs. And coming back to school in September to see the empty desks where the children hadn’t returned.”

Jonas Salk consumed over seven years of his life on his goal. When broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow asked him “who owns the patent on this vaccine”, Dr. Salk replied: “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

All those years, all that time, work and effort, and even in the end the man took no personal financial interest in the result. A mortal virus afflicted the children of his generation, and he was going to lift heaven and earth, if he had to, to stop it.Salk

In the late 50s, Salk became interested in building his own research institute. He searched for a site for over a year, until he met San Diego Mayor Charles Dail, himself a polio survivor. Dail showed Salk 27 acres on a mesa in La Jolla, just west of the proposed site for the new UC campus then planned for San Diego. In June of 1960, the citizens of San Diego overwhelmingly voted “yes”, to donate the land for Salk’s dream. Construction began with initial funding from the National Foundation/March of Dimes, and completed in 1967.

Jonas Salk died on June 23, 1995, at the age of 80. A memorial at the Institute bearing his name reads: “Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.”poliovaccina

By 1979, the disease was eradicated from the United States.  The worldwide effort to wipe out polio began in 1988, with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.  20 million volunteers from virtually every country in the world have vaccinated over 2.5 billion children, at a cost of $11 billion. Worldwide, the incidence of new polio cases decreased by 99%.  Today, the only region where polio remains endemic, are northern Nigeria and the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And so it is that those of us born after 1955 can go on in blissful ignorance, having no idea of the terrors our parents endured before us.

March 11, 1918 Pandemic

Ordinary flu strains prey most heavily on children, elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Not this one.

In the world of virology, “Antigenic Drift” describes changes which happen slowly, the random mutation of virus DNA which takes place over months, or years. It’s why we get a new flu vaccine every year, even though there’s already some level of “herd immunity”.

“Antigenic Shift” occurs when two or more DNA strands combine, instantaneously forming a new virus sub-type. Like the dealer at some giant, cosmic poker table, this process may deal us a pair of twos. Occasionally, fate deals us aces & eights. The death hand.flu6

When the “Great War” broke out in 1914, US Armed Forces were small compared with the mobilized forces of European powers. The Selective Service Act, enacted May 18, 1917, authorized the federal government to raise an army for the United States’ entry into WWI. Two months after the American declaration of war against Imperial Germany, a mere 14,000 American soldiers had arrived “over there”. Eleven months later, that number stood at well over a million.

General “Black Jack” Pershing insisted that his forces be well trained before deployment. New recruits poured into training camps by the tens of thousands, while somewhere, some microscopic, chance recombination of surface proteins created a new virus, novel to almost every immune system in the world.

Flu pandemicOn the morning of March 11, 1918, most of the recruits at Fort Riley, Kansas, were turning out for breakfast. Private Albert Gitchell reported to the hospital, complaining of cold-like symptoms of sore throat, fever and headache. By noon, more than 100 more had reported sick with similar symptoms.

Ordinary flu strains prey most heavily on children, elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Not this one. This flu would kick off a positive feedback loop between small proteins called cytokines, and white blood cells. This “cytokine storm” resulted in a death rate for 15-34 year olds 20 times higher in 1918, than in previous years. Perversely, it was their young and healthy immune systems that were most likely to kill them.

Physicians described the most viscous pneumonia they had ever seen, death often comingspanish_flu_death_chart-790-x-602.jpg_w=790&h=602 within hours of the first symptoms. There’s a story about four young, healthy women playing bridge well into the night. By morning, three were dead of influenza.

Over the next two years, this strain of flu infected one in every four people in the United States, killing an estimated 675,000 Americans. Eight million died in Spain alone, following an initial outbreak in May. Forever after, the pandemic would be known as the Spanish Flu.

In 1918, children skipped rope to a rhyme:

“I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
and in-flu-enza”.

In the trenches, the flu cut down combatants on every side. “Operation Michael”, the final, no holds barred German offensive that would determine the outcome of the war, launched from the Hindenburg line in March. Crown Prince Rupprecht wrote in August that “poor provisions, heavy losses, and the deepening influenza have deeply depressed the spirits of men in the 3rd Infantry Division”.

Some sources indicate that as many as half of the Americans killed in WWI, died of the flu.
The parades and parties following the cease fire in November threw gasoline on the fire. The end of war was a complete disaster from a public health standpoint. Millions more contracted the flu and thousands more died. President Wilson himself fell ill, while participating in 1919 treaty negotiations in Versailles.

1918-spanishfluAround the planet, the Spanish flu infected 500 million people. A third of the population of the entire world, at that time. Estimates run as high 50 to 100 million killed. For purposes of comparison, the “Black Death” of 1347-51 killed 20 million Europeans.

History has a way of swallowing some events whole, like they never happened. Today, the Spanish flu is all but overshadowed by the Great War, even though in the end, the flu pandemic of 1918-19 proved a far deadlier adversary, than the war itself.

January 25, 1925 The Great Race of Mercy

Dr. Welch expected a high mortality rate among the 3,000 or so white inhabitants, but the 7,000 area natives had no immunity whatsoever. Mortality rates among these populations could be expected to approach 100%

diphtheria
Corynebacterium diphtheriae

Diphtheria is highly contagious, with early symptoms resembling a cold or flu. Fever, sore throat, and chills lead to bluish skin coloration, painful swallowing, and difficulty breathing. Later symptoms include cardiac arrhythmia with cranial and peripheral nerve palsies, as proteins form a leathery, white “pseudo membrane” on the throat and nasal tissues.

Today the disease is all but eradicated in the United States, but diphtheria was once a major killer of children.

Spain experienced an outbreak of the disease in 1613. To this day the year is remembered as “El Año de los Garotillos”.  The Year of Strangulations.

A severe outbreak swept through New England in 1735. In one New Hampshire town, one of every three children under the age of 10 died of the disease.  In some cases entire families were wiped out. Noah Webster described the outbreak, saying “It was literally the plague among children. Many families lost three of four children—many lost all”.

Dr. Curtis Welch practiced medicine in Nome, Alaska, in 1925. Several children became illdiphtheria_vaccination_poster with what he first diagnosed as tonsillitis. More came down with sore throats, early sufferers beginning to die as Welch observed the white pseudo membrane of diphtheria. He had ordered fresh antitoxin the year before, but the shipment hadn’t arrived by the time the ports froze over. By January, all the serum in Nome was expired.

There were 10,000 living in Nome at the time, 2° south of the Arctic Circle. Welch expected a high mortality rate among the 3,000 or so white inhabitants, but the 7,000 area natives: Central Yupik, Inupiaq, St. Lawrence Island Yupik and American Indians with lineage tied to tribes in the Lower 48, had no immunity whatsoever. Mortality among these populations could be expected to approach 100%.

Five children had died by January 25, while Dr. Welch suspected more in the remote native camps. A telegram went out and an Anchorage hospital came up with 300,204 units of serum.  It was enough for 30 patients. A million units were needed, but this was enough to stave off an epidemic until the larger shipment arrived in February.

serum-runThe 300,000 units shipped as far as they could by rail, arriving at Nenana, 674 miles from Nome. Three vintage biplanes were available, but all were in pieces, and none would start in the sub-arctic cold. The antitoxin would have to go the rest of the way by dog sled.

It was 9:00pm and −50°F on January 27, when “Wild Bill” Shannon and his nine dog team received the 20lb cylinder of serum. The temperature was −62°F when Shannon reached Minto at 3:00am, hypothermic, with parts of his face blackened by frostbite.

Leonhard Seppala and his dog team took their turn, departing into gale force winds and

sepp-and-togo
Seppala & Togo

zero visibility, with a wind chill of −85°F. Most sled dogs are retired by age twelve, especially team leaders, but it was twelve year old “Togo” who was trusted with the lead. Up the 5,000′ “Little McKinley” and across the unstable ice of Norton Sound, visibility was so poor that Seppala couldn’t see the “wheel dog” – the dog nearest his sled. Much of the time, navigation in that frozen wilderness was entirely up to his lead dog.

With Seppala’s 8 year old daughter and only child Sigrid at risk for the disease, stakes could not have been higher. Seppala and Togo ran 170 miles to receive the serum, returning another 91 miles to make the next handoff on February 1. Together the pair covered twice as much ground as any other team, over the most dangerous terrain of the “serum run”.

balto-of-nome
Balto & Team, in Nome

Gunnar Kaasen and his team took the handoff, hitting the trail at 10:00 at night. At one point, hurricane force winds upended the sled, pitching musher and serum alike into the snow. Already frostbitten, Kaasen searched in the dark with bare hands, until he found the cylinder. Covering the last 53 miles overnight, the team reached Front Street, Nome, at 5:30am on February 2. The serum was thawed and ready by noon.

20 mushers and 150+ dogs had covered 674 miles in 5 days, 7½ hours, a distance that normally took the mail relay 2-3 weeks.  Not a single serum ampule was broken.

With 28 confirmed cases and enough serum for 30, the serum run had held the death toll at 5, 6 or 7, depending on which version you accept. Doctor Welch suspected as many as 100 or more deaths in the native camps, but the real number will never be known. An untold number of dogs died before completing the run, several mushers were severely frostbitten.

Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog “Balto” were hailed as heroes of the serum run, the dogbalto-statue becoming the most popular canine celebrity in the country after Rin Tin Tin. It was a source of considerable bitterness for Leonhard Seppala, who felt that Kaasen’s 53 mile run was nothing compared with his own 261, Kaasen’s lead dog little more than a “freight dog”.

A statue of Balto was erected in New York’s Central Park in 1925 where it stands to this day, though he is depicted wearing Togo’s “colors” (awards). Togo lived another four years, though he was never again able to run. He spent his last years in Poland Spring, Maine, and passed away on December 5 at the ripe old age of 16.togo

Seppala was in his old age in 1960, when he recalled “I never had a better dog than Togo. His stamina, loyalty and intelligence could not be improved upon. Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail.” Today, Togo is stuffed and mounted, standing watch in the Iditarod museum headquarters in Wasilla, Alaska.

January 22, 2000 A Hole in the Head

To prove the point, to his own satisfaction if to no one else, Hughes drilled a hole in his own skull on January 6, 1965, using a Black & Decker electric drill

It’s called “Trepanation”, possibly the oldest surgical procedure for which we have archaeological evidence. Trepanation involves drilling or scraping a hole into the human ancient-peruvian-trepanationhead, and seems to have begun sometime in the Neolithic, or “New Stone Age” period. One archaeological dig in France uncovered 120 skulls, 40 of which showed signs of trepanning. Another such skull was recovered from a 5th millennium BC dig in Azerbaijan.  A number of 2nd millennium BC specimens have been unearthed in pre-Colombian Mesoamerica; the area now occupied by the central Mexican highlands through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica.

bronze_age_skull_from_jericho_palestine
Bronze age skull

Hippocrates, the Father of Western Medicine, described the procedure in detail in his treatise “On Injuries of the Head,” written sometime around 400BC. The Roman physician Galen of Pergamon expanded on the procedure some 500 years later. Archaeologists discovered 12½%, of all the skulls in pre-Christian era Magyar (Hungarian) graveyards, to have been trepanned.

The procedure has obvious applications in the treatment of head trauma, though it has been used to treat everything from seizures to migraines to mental disorders. During medieval times, the procedure was used to liberate demons from the heads of the possessed and to cure an assortment of ailments from meningitis to epilepsy.

trepan-posterTrepanation took on airs of pseudo-science, many would say “quackery”, when the Dutch librarian Hugo Bart Huges (Hughes) published “The Mechanism of Brainbloodvolume (‘BBV’)” in 1964. In it, Hughes contends that our brains drained of blood and cerebrospinal fluid when mankind began to walk upright, and that trepanation allows the blood to better flow in and out of the brain, causing a permanent “high”.

To prove the point, to his own satisfaction if to no one else, Hughes drilled a hole in his own skull on January 6, 1965, using a Black & Decker electric drill. He must have thought it proved the point, because he expanded on his theory with “Trepanation: A Cure for Psychosis”, as well as an autobiography, “The Book with the Hole”, published in 1972.

Peter Halvorson, a Hughes follower and director of the International Trepanation Advocacy Group (ITAG), would disagree with that quackery comment. Halvorson trepanned himself with an electric drill in 1972. Today, he explains on his ITAG website (www.trepan.com) that “The hypothesis here at ITAG has been that making an opening in the skull favorably alters movement of blood through the brain and improves brain functions which are more important than ever before in history to adapt to an ever more rapidly changing world”.with-a-drill

On January 22, 2000, Peter Halvorson and Williams Lyons helped drill a hole in a woman’s head for producers of the ABC News program “20/20.” This was in Beryl, Utah, and the television program which ensued, airing on February 10, resulted in criminal charges and arrest warrants for the two men. At the time, the Iron County DA was also considering charges against ABC News reporter Chris Cuomo for aiding in the crime. There is precedent in Utah for such a charge against a reporter. In 1999, KTVX reporter Mary Sawyers (allegedly) provoked a group of Carbon County High School students into using tobacco products for a story on youths and tobacco. Sawyers later stood trial for contributing to the delinquency of a minor in Utah’s 7th District Court of Appeals.

St. Louis neurologist Dr. William Landau wasn’t impressed with Hughes’ brainbloodvolume theory, explaining that “There is no scientific basis for this at all. It’s quackery.” Dr. Robert B. Daroff, Professor of Neurology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, was a little more to the point. “Horseshit,” he said. “Absolute, unequivocal bullshit”.