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Epidemics In Our Ancestors' Lives

Seventy-five years ago, on January 20, Dr. Curtis Welch telegraphed Fairbanks, Anchorage, Seward, and Juneau, Alaska, requesting help to fight a diphtheria epidemic that threatened to decimate the population of Nome, Alaska.  Nome was in desperate need of more antitoxin, but the nearest supply was in Anchorage, 955 miles away.  The serum traveled by rail to Nenana, and the rest of the distance by a relay of dog teams. On 2 February 1925, Gunner Kassen and his team, led by the legendary Balto, delivered the much-needed antitoxin to Nome, saving many lives.

Throughout history, people have been ravaged by epidemics that, in many cases, wiped out entire families.  In 1841, yellow fever swept through the South, and in 1918, the Spanish flu spread quickly throughout the world, leaving an estimated 25 to 40 million dead. These are only a few examples of widespread illnesses that affected the lives of our ancestors.  Many died in these outbreaks and others fled to other areas, hoping to save their families.

Below are some links to Web sites with timelines and information about these epidemics and the havoc they wreaked.


Cholera hit Adams County several times during the 1850s. Click here for a list extracted from local newspapers of people who died of the disease.

Epidemic Timelines and Chronologies

U.S. Epidemics

Plagues & Epidemics

The American Experience: Influenza 1918

Plague and Epidemic in Renaissance Europe