#106: The Greatest Dog Story Ever Told

Talking Big Ideas.

“Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail.” 
~ Leonhard Seppala 

This week in 1925 a remote town was miraculously saved from hell. 

Children were dying from a deadly disease in Nome, an Alaska gold-rush town sandwiched between an unforgiving wilderness and a frozen sea. Diphtheria was spreading, and Nome’s 1,400 residents were at risk of contracting the disease and choking to death. 

They had no medicine to treat diphtheria. Memories of the Spanish flu sweeping through the region and brutally killing hundreds were still vivid. 

The town’s lone doctor sent a desperate telegram to Washington D.C. begging for medicine and added that unless it arrived soon an “epidemic of diphtheria is almost inevitable.” 

But Nome was cut off from the world. Closer to Siberia than Anchorage, ships couldn’t dock at the port because of the ice and airplanes couldn’t fly in the arctic conditions. 

The only hope to save Nome was sled dogs. 

Officials were able to quickly get medicine to the nearest train station, which was still a staggering 674 miles away – the distance from D.C. to Chicago. A patchwork team of sled dogs and mushers (the people who steer the sleds) coordinated to cover this trek. 

Musher Leonhard Seppala handled the longest stretch of extreme and deadly terrain. He placed his dog Togo at the lead. At one point, Seppala had to choose whether to save time by shortcutting over the frozen Norton Sound in blinding snow. He couldn’t see but was confident Togo, who mushers considered the best sled dog alive, would know whether the ice would hold. 

Togo safely led his team across. The ice broke into the water shortly after they passed over it. 

In total, 20 mushers and 150 sled dogs were involved. They faced blizzard whiteouts, air temperatures below -60, and the wind chill breaking -85. Four of the dogs died en route. 

The entire run normally took 30 days, but they did it in just over 5. Remarkably, the medicine made it to Nome in time to prevent an epidemic.

Media loved the story. They focused their attention on the team that made the final push into Nome. The lead dog was named Fox, but news officials didn’t like his name as much as another dog from the final run named Balto. 

Balto became an immediate sensation. 

He appeared on the cover of newspapers and magazines. Within months he was immortalized in a large bronze statue in Central Park, Manhattan. He was the star of a film and several children’s books. 

Bronze statue of Balto in Central Park, Manhattan.

Togo was largely ignored. As were the native Alaska mushers, who covered most of the trek.

They’re not alone. Those deserving credit are often left behind. 

Jocelyn Bell made one of the greatest discoveries in the history of astronomy. It won the Nobel Prize, which was given to Jocelyn’s teacher and another scientist – but not Jocelyn. 

James Watson and Francis Crick became world-famous for discovering DNA. They never mentioned or gave credit to Rosalind Franklin, the brilliant chemist whose work they used without permission to make their discovery. She was also ignored by the Nobel Prize committee that awarded Watson and Crick without mentioning her. 


The “wizard” Norman Borlaug saved more people than anyone else in history – a billion lives! But as Steven Pinker says, “who the heck is Norman Borlaug?” 

We all know that Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb. Except he didn’t. Warren De la Rue and Joseph Swan both beat him to it. And I always thought Michael Jackson came up with the moonwalk, but check out Bill Bailey at the Apollo Theater in 1955: 

As storytellers, it’s on us to dig a little deeper. To make sure we’re sharing the truth without repeating falsehoods or overlooking the people (and dogs!) that most deserve credit. Not only is this ethical, these hidden gems often help bring our stories to life. 

Togo received his first statue 72 years after saving Nome. More recently, Discovery Channel highlighted Togo in a documentary called The Greatest Dog Story Ever Told, Disney released Togo: The Untold Story, and TIME magazine named Togo the most heroic animal of all time: 

The dog that often gets credit for eventually saving the town is Balto, but . . . the sled dog who did the lion’s share of the work was Togo. His journey, fraught with white-out storms, was the longest by 200 miles and included a traverse across perilous Norton Sound . . . Togo, we salute you.

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IDEA

Tell the real story.

CHALLENGE

Do you know someone who’s been overlooked or underappreciated? How can you help them get a little recognition? 

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Cheers,
Bob

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