Profiles in Nursing

Kate Marsden (1859-1931), and a Quest to Cure Leprosy

An English nurse, an 11,000-mile trek across Siberia and a persistent scandal

In 1891, English nurse Kate Marsden made a grueling 11,000-mile trek across Siberia in search of a rare herb purported to cure leprosy. She survived this perilous adventure only to find herself in a different sort of predicament when she returned home.

Around the World

Born in Middlesex, England, Kate Marsden began her training as a nurse at Tottenham Hospital at age 17. In 1877, at the age of 18, she joined a group of nurse volunteers in Bulgaria, treating casualties of the Russo-Turkish War.

After returning to England, Marsden continued working as a nurse in London and later in Liverpool. In 1885, she moved to New Zealand to care for her dying sister and remained there for the next four years, briefly serving as lady superintendent of Wellington Hospital and becoming a well-known nurse lecturer. She also had several romantic relationships with other women, some of which would later come back to haunt her.

The Queen and the Empress

Around the time she returned to England in 1889, the 30-year-old Marsden decided to launch a crusade against leprosy, which she had first encountered in Bulgaria and which had recently been much in the news.

Leprosy is a bacterial infection that causes lesions, nerve damage and sometimes horrifying deformity. Although the disease is actually less contagious than was popularly supposed, sufferers were shunned and stigmatized. “Cut off from their fellow-creatures, avoided, despised and doomed to a living death — surely these, of all afflicted people, ought to become the object of my mission,” she later wrote.

Marsden’s plans took a number of fortuitous turns. First, the Russian Red Cross invited her to St. Petersburg, Russia, to receive a medal for her wartime work. Before her departure, Marsden received an audience with Queen Victoria and, with the aid of Alexandra, the Princess of Wales, arranged an audience with Russia’s Empress Maria Feodorovna, Alexandra’s sister.

During that audience in April 1890, the empress expressed support for Marsden’s project and provided her with a letter of introduction, which would later prove invaluable.

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“My Nurse’s Uniform”

Marsden spent the next few months traveling and studying leprosy. In Constantinople, she heard of a rare Siberian herb that could supposedly treat or cure the disease. She was keenly interested, since Louis Pasteur himself had recently warned her that there was little hope of a vaccine. Setting aside her original plan to go to India, she decided to investigate.

In November 1890, Marsden, armed with her letter from the empress, arrived in Moscow and presented herself to the governor-general, Prince Vladimir Andreevich Dolgorukov. “The etiquette at such audiences is to appear in full day dress,” she later recalled. “Happily, I had my nurse’s uniform, which suits all occasions.”

She spent the next three months ingratiating herself with the Russian nobility, raising funds and preparing for her journey. On Feb. 1, 1891, Marsden and her friend Ada Field, a Russian-speaking missionary who’d agreed to act as her translator, set out across Siberia to find this mysterious herb.

Ten Months in Siberia

Marsden’s Siberian odyssey was no pleasure trip. After a cold and uncomfortable journey through the Urals by sledge, Field was too sick to continue, so Marsden went on without her, traveling first by horse-drawn cart and then by raft along the River Lena to Yakutsk.

On June 22, she began a 2,000-mile journey on horseback to Vilyuysk, where she had learned there was a colony of lepers. It was now summer in Siberia, which meant swarms of mosquitos, fires and ferocious thunderstorms as well as bears and wolves. Marsden carried a whip and a revolver, although she didn’t know how to use either weapon.

Upon reaching the Vilyuysk district, Marsden found more than 70 lepers living in the northeastern forests in terrible squalor. Scorned and feared by their neighbors, they subsisted on handouts and scraps of often-rotten food, lacking help even to bury their dead. Marsden was horrified by the sight, declaring that “some of the worst details are too repulsive to write about, even for the sake of increasing sympathy.”

Hiring Now

Exhausted, Marsden began the long journey back, reaching Moscow that December. She spent the next few months in Moscow and St. Petersburg, reporting what she’d seen and pleading for funds to establish a proper settlement and hospital for the Vilyuysk lepers.

Marsden later claimed that she did find the legendary herb, but was vague about the details, saying only that “it is not a cure for leprosy, it only alleviates the suffering.” (It may have been a local herb called kutchutka, but Marsden declined to provide samples for testing.)

Portrait of a Scandal

1892, Marsden wrote a book about her experiences, On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers, which earned her a fellowship in the Royal Geographical Society and many lecture engagements. However, she soon found herself under attack.

On the ship from New Zealand in 1889, Marsden had become involved with an English widow named Ellen Hewett. Hewett traveled with Marsden in the months prior to her Russian expedition, but their relationship had ended badly. Hewett subsequently claimed that Marsden had used her for her money, and that Marsden’s entire leprosy crusade was a scam.

The New Zealand press seized on those and other accusations (including the allegation of another former acquaintance that Marsden had committed insurance fraud in 1885), as did an American writer named Isabel Hapgood. Hapgood had never met Marsden, but seemed determined to publicly vilify her at every opportunity.

Investigations of Marsden’s charitable work found no financial misconduct, but the revelation of her affairs with women proved damaging. Although sexual relationships between women weren’t illegal in England, they were considered highly indecent, which hurt Marsden’s social standing as much as the fraud accusations.

The Leprosy Guild

Marsden attempted to salvage the situation by converting to Roman Catholicism in 1895 and founding the St. Francis Leper Guild (now called the St. Francis Leprosy Guild), but the scandal dogged her for the rest of her life. She did have the small satisfaction of outliving Hapgood, who died in 1928.

Although her quest for the rare herb was a dead end, Marsden’s efforts on behalf of the Vilyuysk lepers were not in vain. The leprosy hospital for which she’d raised money opened in 1897; it later became a psychiatric hospital and eventually a boarding house for the elderly and invalid. Today, she is still warmly remembered throughout the region.

Aaron Severson is the associate editor of Working Nurse. You can find his recent historical features, William Rathbone VI (1819-1902), Father of English District Nursing and A Brief History of Measles and Its Vaccines.


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