International Leprosy Association -
History of Leprosy

  • International Leprosy Association -
    History of Leprosy


    Kate Marsden

    Status Medical Missionary
    Country United Kingdom


    Kate Marsden (1859-1931) was an English nurse, missionary, and explorer known for her 1891 expedition to minister to leprosy patients in Siberia.

    Marsden was born in Middlesex, England. Following her father's death in 1873 she was plunged into poverty. In 1876-7, she trained as a nurse at the evangelical Tottenham Hospital, and in 1877 she volunteered to join a mission to Bulgaria to tend to Russian casualties of the Russo-Turkish War. She witnessed her first case of leprosy in a military leprosarium in Rustuchuck, Bulgaria.

    She returned to Britain in 1878, first taking up a post at Westminster Hospital and subsequently at a convalescent home in Liverpool until ill health forced her to leave the job in 1882.

    In 1884, she travelled to New Zealand with her mother to help care for her sister Annie Jane, who was dying of tuberculosis. They arrived in January 1885, but Annie died within a week; Kate Marsden and her mother stayed in New Zealand for the next several years. Marsden took up a post as Lady Superintendent of the recently established Wellington Hospital, where she helped run the hospital, care for patients, and train nurses.

    After her return to Britain in 1889 she intended to focus her work on leprosy care in India. However, in 1890 she travelled to Russia to receive an award for her work during the war, and her interest was drawn to the need for leprosy care there. She met with prominent Russians and gained support for her planned journey to Siberia.

    In 1891, Marsden travelled to Yakutsk in north-eastern Siberia in search of an unspecified herb that was rumoured to help treat leprosy. She hoped to use it to help leprosy patients in India. She was given samples of the herb (which she never identified by name), but was unable to learn how it might be used for medicinal purposes. Instead, however, she became determined to improve the living conditions of the Siberian people with leprosy she encountered.

    On her return, Marsden devoted herself to raising funds and support for further work in Siberia. She received audiences with Queen Victoria, the Princess of Wales, and the Empress of Russia. With the aid of a London committee, she succeeded in raising £2400 for a leprosy hospital, which was opened in Vilyusk in 1897. She became one of the first female fellows to be elected to the Royal Geographical Society (in 1892), and published a book describing her journey, On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers (1893).

    However, both before and after her journey to Siberia, Marsden was beset by campaigns to discredit her. She was accused of embezzling from the funds she raised for charity, of fabricating parts or all of the story of her journey to Siberia, and of homosexuality. Reviews of her book and newspaper reports of her fundraising activity spoke of her negatively, with a frequently sceptical tone. Her name was permanently tarnished, and many of her prominent supporters withdrew their support.

    She died in London in 1931, having been invalid for 30 years.


    Chapman, Hilary. "The New Zealand Campaign Against Kate Marsden, Traveller to Siberia." New Zealand Slavonic Journal (2000): 123-40. Web.

    Marsden, Kate. On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers. London: Phoenix, 1986 (originally published 1892).

    Middleton, D. “Marsden, Kate (1859–1931)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by HCG Matthew and B Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004 (accessed September 13, 2006).


    K Marsden On Sledge and on Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers. 1893.
    K Marsden My Mission in Siberia: a Vindication. 1921.


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