Emily Morgan was a Butler County native who found fame in Alaska
Editor’ note: The following about a famous Butler County native has been told before, but I wanted to make it a part of the Tales of Butler County, and share it with those readers who may not be aware of Emily Morgan’s amazing life.
Emily Morgan was born in 1878 in Spring Township, near Leon. She was the second oldest of nine children born to Mr. and Mrs. Henry Morgan. The Morgans came to Kansas in 1878 and homesteaded a claim that became one of the finest farms in the area.
Morgan graduated from Leon High School in 1897 and worked to pay her own way to nursing school. She traveled to St. Joseph, Mo. and attended the Ensworth Nurses Training School, which later became the Methodist Hospital. She graduated in 1905 and began her career serving as a missionary nurse in Panama and India, as well as serving as a nurse in the Army Reserve Nurses Corps during World War I, in France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, England, and Australia.
Morgan enjoyed traveling and learning about new places, but when the war ended, she came home to care for her widowed father. Upon returning to Kansas, she became an American Red Cross Nurse and the first public health nurse in Wichita. While serving as a school nurse, she contracted diphtheria and learned firsthand about the deadly disease.
Following her father’s death in 1923, she took an assignment at the Maynard Columbus Hospital in Nome, Alaska. Her patients were the 10,000 settlers and native Alaskans in the vast area. Morgan and four other nurses supported one doctor in the territory.
The Red Cross assigned her to Maynard Columbus Hospital in Nome, Alaska. The deadly diphtheria virus was killing children in 1924. Emily knew the symptoms of the disease well and because of her history, she was chosen to nurse and administer the antitoxin to the sick.
The doctor had ordered diphtheria antitoxin, but before the supply could arrive, the seaport was frozen. The only way to get tje serum to Nome, was by train and dog sled. The weather would not allow for planes to drop the needed medicine.
Frantic messages were telegraphed to Washington, D.C., and Anchorage. Alaska’s governor ordered a dog relay that would include the best mushers of the postal service. The serum would leave Achorage by train north to Nenana, and from there the 674 journey would be by dog sled. They would travel day and night to make the delivery to Nome. The dog sled pushed forward in blizzard conditions, strong winds, with little or no visible trail, and delivered the precious cargo in 127 hours. Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog Balto pushed through the final leg. When the serum was handed off to the doctor, Morgan got to work administering the antitoxin. She risked her life in sub-zero weather going from house to house to inoculate the residents.
Morgan advised that she wore woolen underwear, a heavy dress, a sweater, two pairs of woolen stockings, a fur parka and mukluks, traditional soft boots of reindeer skin or sealskin, as she went from house to house.
She prayed with families and even helped one father construct a coffin for his child.
The nurse was quoted as saying, “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.”
Because of the efforts to get the serum to Nome, an epidemic that had potential to kill up to 10,000 people was fatal to about 100. Thousands were saved. For her heroic efforts, The Anchorage Times dubbed her the “Angel of the Yukon.”
Emily was called back to Nome while on furlough in Kansas in 1928 to help fight the smallpox epidemic. Before leaving Alaska, she was in charge at Barrow Hospital when Wiley Post and Will Rogers’ bodies were brought in from their plane crash on Aug. 15, 1935. Post, a famous aviator, and Rogers, celebrated as one of America’s favorite cowboys and humorists, were on vacation in Alaska and crashed just after takeoff near Point Barrow.
During World War II, she was nurse in New Zealand. She returned to Kansas, continued to work as a nurse and retired in 1950. She died in El Dorado on May 9, 1960.
Emily Morgan was buried in the Walnut Valley Memorial Park Cemetery in El Dorado.
She was added to the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame in 2013 for her heroic efforts in saving the lives of Alaskans during the diphtheria epidemic and her additional years of public health service.
A truly amazing legacy for a Butler County farm girl.
Sources: The Walnut Valley Times, Aug. 6, 1919; The New York Times, Feb. 2, 1925; “Angel of the Yukon,” by Charlotte Offen, True West Magazine, April 1974; The Kingdom of Butler - Her People, 1980; Wichita Eagle Magazine, May 19, 1957; The Topeka Capital, Dec. 23, 1928; Wichita Eagle, Aug. 2, 1947.