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Emily Morgan played crucial role during Alaska diphtheria epidemic

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, March 11, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating the state’s history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, “Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.”

To see a news reel showing Emily Morgan and Curtis Welch re-enacting receiving and administering diphtheria serum go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Otirs-KaP1k

It has been nearly nine decades since Emily Morgan, a Kansas native, drew the attention of the world and was nicknamed the “Angel of the Yukon.”

In the winter of 1925, a diphtheria epidemic was on the verge of breaking out in Nome, Alaska. An Arctic ice pack cut the town of 1,400 residents off from civilization.

The only communication was telephone, telegraph and dog sleds.

Morgan, who’d grown up on a farm near Leon in Butler County, was a nurse sent by the Red Cross on a mission to Alaska in 1923.

While dog mushers are often seen as the heroes in the 1925 Nome Serum Run, she was the one who first made the diagnosis that a diphtheria epidemic was under way and that the town’s population would not be able to survive without receiving 300,000 units of new antitoxin.

What few serum supplies were on hand were 5 years old and might or might not be good.

At best, it would take 9 to 12 days to receive a shipment by dogsled of new serum.

Last month, Morgan was listed in the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame for her heroic efforts in saving the villagers of Nome and for her tireless work in health and community service.

According to records with the Butler County History Center and Kansas Oil Museum in El Dorado, Morgan was born on a farm in Spring Township in Butler County on March 7, 1878. She graduated from Leon High School in 1897 and, in 1905, received her nursing degree from the Missouri Methodist Hospital at St. Joseph, Mo.

She was a missionary nurse in India and Panama. During World War I, she worked as an Army nurse in France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, England and Australia.

After serving during World War I, Morgan came back to the states and worked as a public health nurse in Wichita and was the city’s first school nurse. In Wichita, she contracted diphtheria with the tell-tale symptoms of sore throat, swollen glands and a thick gray membrane covering the throat and tonsils.

Long after she fully recovered — and two years before the start of the diphtheria epidemic — Morgan was sent to Alaska.

A few months before she died on May 9, 1960, she told a reporter what those anxious days in 1925 in Nome were like. The True West Magazine published the article in March-April of 1974.

Morgan had been called to the home of a sick child.

“Her face was flushed and when I looked at my thermometer after removing it from her armpit, I found it registered 101 degrees. A heavy dark membrane covered her tonsils.”

Morgan hurried back to the town’s only doctor, Curtis Welch.

“We all were horror-stricken, fully aware there was only a small supply of antitoxin in reserve,” Morgan said.

The town’s schools and meeting places were closed in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease.

Frantic messages were telegraphed to Washington, D.C., and Anchorage.

The closest supply of antitoxin was in Anchorage. Arrangements were made to send the serum by train north to Nenana, Alaska. From there, it was still more than a 650-mile journey by dog sled to Nome, across frozen land and ice in blizzard conditions with minus-60-degree temperatures.

Dog teams were placed at strategic points along the route to relay the serum.

In the meantime, it was up to Morgan and Welch to administer the remaining serum on hand.

She wore woolen underwear, a heavy dress, a sweater, two pairs of woolen hose, a fur parka and mukluks as she walked in subzero temperatures to inoculate residents. In her medical bag, she carried a flashlight, a thermometer, tongue depressors, antitoxin and candy to tempt the children.

“It was my duty to visit any home where there was sickness, or anyone suspected of being ill,” Morgan said.

She prayed with some families and helped one father fashion a coffin for his child.

When it was all said and done, Morgan said, “I was the privileged instrument in the hands of fate that administered precious life-saving serum, and whatever fame has been attached to me, I have worn humbly.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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