Encyclopedia Womannica

Explorers & Contenders: Kate Marsden

Episode Summary

Kate Marsden (1859-1931) a British missionary, adventurer, writer and nurse who devoted herself to finding a cure for Leprosy (Hansen’s Disease). She traveled thousands of miles through the Siberian wilderness in search of a cure.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s explorer was a British missionary, writer and nurse. A devoted advocate for leprosy patients, she traveled thousands of miles through the Siberian wilderness in search of a cure. But upon her return home to England, she faced public ridicule -- and punishment -- for her sexuality. 

Let’s talk about Kate Marsden. 

Kate Marsden was born in 1859, in London’s Edmonton district. 

Her father, J.D. Marsden, was a lawyer. Her mother, Sophia Matilda Wellsted, ran the family household. Kate was the youngest of eight. 

When Kate was 14, her father passed away. His sudden death plunged the family into poverty. Kate left school, and spent the next two years looking for work. 

At 16, she became a nurse in a London hospital.

In 1877, at the age of 18, Kate volunteered for a nursing mission to Bulgaria. It was there, amidst the turmoil of the Russo-Turkish War [RUH-soh], that Kate saw her first case of leprosy. 

Leprosy is an infectious disease that causes severe, disfiguring sores all over the body. At the time, it was thought to be incurable. Leprosy patients, called “lepers” [LEH-pers], were often shunned by their communities, and exiled. Kate was appalled at their treatment.

Upon her return to England, Kate began nursing several of her siblings who had fallen ill with tuberculosis. She then set sail for New Zealand, to tend to another sister, who was also consumptive. Within a week of Kate’s arrival, her sister died. 

Kate decided to stay on in New Zealand, becoming Lady Superintendent of Wellington Hospital, an institution that cared primarily for the local Maori [MAO-ree] population. But she remained haunted by the leprosy patients she’d met in Bulgaria. 

With the support of Queen Victoria, Kate traveled to Russia, to meet with the royal family. The funding Kate received from the Romanovs allowed her to travel through Egypt, Palestine, Cyprus and Turkey, researching and treating leprosy. 

In Constantinople, Kate met a British doctor who spoke of a special herb. The plant grew only in Siberia, according to the doctor. And it could cure leprosy. 

So Kate set off for Siberia. 

In 1890, Kate arrived in Moscow. She was given a letter by the Tsarina, which encouraged its readers to assist Kate in her search for a leprosy cure. 

Accompanied by her translator, Ada Field, Kate traveled first by train, then by sledge. Her winter furs were so robust, it reportedly took three men to carry her into the large sled. In Omsk, in Southwest Siberia, Kate continued alone. She took a horse-drawn carriage to the Lena [LEE-nah] River, then a barge to Yakutsk [Ya-KOOT-SK]. From there, she rode horseback across the tundra.  

In total, Kate spent nearly a year crossing 11,000 miles. Despite traveling under the auspices of the royal family, she volunteered at prisons. She passed out food rations to men who had been exiled. She gave double to the women who accompanied them, and to the female convicts traveling alone. 

Though she eventually found the herb she’d been looking for, its curative powers were not as promised. Still, Kate stayed on in Siberia, working in remote leper colonies. In 1892, she was named one of the first female fellows of the Royal Geographical Society. 

In 1893, Kate traveled to Chicago for the World’s Fair. She gave a lecture, aptly titled ‘The Leper,’ to the Congress of Women.  

Back in England, though, trouble was brewing for Kate. People found it hard to believe that a woman had traveled that far through Siberia. William Thomas Stead, now considered one of the first tabloid journalists, held up her accounts for public derision. 

The Reverend Alexander Francis, a pastor stationed in St. Petersburg, said he’d obtained a confession of “immorality with women” from Kate. These claims sparked a Russian investigation. In a letter written by both British and American diplomats, the authors attempted to clear Kate's name in 1894. 

But the damage was done. Plagued by continuing rumors of fraud, and mocked for her relationships with women, Kate withdrew from public life. 

Kate died in London on March 26, 1931, and was buried in Hillingdon Cemetery. For years, her grave was inaccessible. But recently, the overgrown bushes were cut back. And for the first time in decades, you can clearly see her headstone. 

All month, we’re talking about Explorers and Contenders. On Sundays, we’re taking a break from our normal episodes to highlight women we’ve previously covered who did amazing things in healthcare. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter, Womannica Weekly. 

You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!