An Outstanding Journey of a British Nurse to the Yakut Lepers in Siberia
Submitted by Yuri Bessonov
A short survey of the epic expedition into the depths of the Siberian Taiga in 1891 made by Kate Marsden, a British Nurse devoted her life to alleviating sufferings of lepers round the world.
Studying the history of nursing one can come across lots of outstanding examples of selfless devotion in bringing help to the people suffering from poverty, wars, and diseases. One of the most remarkable feats made by nurses in the nineteenth century was an outstanding expedition of a British nurse Kate Marsden into the remotest part of the East Siberian taiga to investigate living conditions of lepers among the Yakut people, an ethnic minority that lived deep in the forests. This journey, the details of which sound astonishing even today, more than 110 years later, gave a powerful impetus for setting up a colony for the lepers near the Yakut settlement of Vilyuisk and made the top authorities of the Russian Empire reconsider their approach to the problem of treating lepers.
Kate Marsden was born in London in 1859. At the age of 16, she started working as a nurse in one of the hospitals in London outskirts. During the Russian-Turkish War in 1877, she, together with a few other British nurses, joined the Red Cross mission in Bulgaria and provided care of the sick and wounded Russian soldiers in the field hospitals. Working hard shoulder-to-shoulder with other nurses in Russian hospitals, she gained a reputation of an unreservedly self-denying person and was granted a special award by Russian Empress Maria Fedorovna for her devoted labor.
In Bulgaria she first saw lepers. One day, exploring the countryside near Sistov in order to find a suitable place for setting a camp for the wounded soldiers transported form the battlefields, she came into a small hut where she met two people whose bodies had been disfigured by leprosy. Miss Marsden was so impressed by the terrifying effects of the disease that she decided to devote her future life to alleviating sufferings of lepers.
On her return to England Kate Marsden wanted to set off immediately to one of the British colonies to organize a mission for helping lepers, but her relatives convinced her not to go. She continued working as a nurse, visiting the sick in the most underprivileged areas in London and Liverpool and she also had to take care of her sisters and brothers suffering from consumption.
In 1890 she read a newspaper article on leprosy in India that described poor state of more than 250 000 lepers there and pointed to the lack of proper care of them. Very much impressed by this article, Kate Marsden decided to go to India and set up a charity organization there. She started raising funds and applied to the British Royal family. Queen Victoria and Princess Alexandra supported the idea and provided some assistance. Seeking more patronage, Kate Marsden went to St. Petersburg and applied to Russian Empress Maria Fedorovna, Princess Alexandra’s sister and Danish Princess Dagmar before marriage, whose charitable activity was well known throughout Europe. Having received the Russian Empress’ benediction and support, Miss Marsden traveled to Palestine, Egypt, Cyprus and Constantinople and visited colonies for lepers there in order to learn more about the state of leprosy treatment and available care. In Constantinople, she met an English doctor who claimed that a certain herb that had a curative effect on leprosy existed somewhere in Siberia, though the Siberian Yakuts kept this herb in secret. Excited with this news, Kate Marsden rushed to St. Petersburg again in November 1890 and applied to the Russian Empress with an idea of organizing an expedition to Siberia in order to provide care for the lepers among Siberian Yakuts, find the herb there and bring the cure to hundreds of thousands of lepers in other countries. Maria Fedorovna met Miss Mardens’ initiative of such a venture with great sympathy and provided necessary funds for the expedition. Besides, the Empress equipped her with a writ of Her Majesty’s protection, and the, so-called, open list - a letter to the Siberian governors, prescribing them to provide every possible support for Miss Marsden’s mission and to cover any additional expenses on her way.
Having received all these documents, Kate Marsden went to Moscow, where she started preparing for the expedition. Moscow Governor Duke Dolgorukov and a number of other Moscow nobles ardently supported her plan to go to Siberia with a charity mission and helped Miss Mardens collect necessary supplies, including warm clothes, linen, copies of the Holy Bible, and some basic medicines to be distributed among the lepers. On February 1, 1891, Miss Marsden and Miss Fild, an English friend of hers who could speak some Russian, set off for a long journey to Siberia.
The first place to visit was Samara, a big city on the Volga river, where Miss Marsden met Governor Sverbeev, who gave her a reference letter to the Venerable Dionisy (Khitrov), Ufa’s Bishop, who had spent over 40 years with the Christian mission among the Yakuts and who had translated the New Testament into their language. The Venerable Dionisy showed unfeigned interest in the expedition and told Miss Marsden about the terrible conditions that lepers had to withstand in Siberia. He also gave her a letter to the Yakutsk bishop who might be helpful in providing assistance in her courageous journey.
One her way to Siberia Miss Marsden visited a few prisons where she distributed 9 000 copies of the New Testament among the prisoners. She also spent considerable amount of money on charity there, saying that although there were no lepers among prisoners, she did not have right to refuse aid.
By the time of Miss Marsden’s journey railways had been constructed only in the central part of Russia, and the farthest place to the East where it was possible to travel by train was Zlatoust (Chelyabinsk region). The next part of the journey, from Zlatoust to Ekaterinburg, was made by carts. In Ekaterinburg Miss Marsden met a couple of Englishmen, who, having known about her intentions, advised her to visit Irbit, a small town where a popular trade fair was traditionally held in February, which would be a chance to meet some Yakut merchants in order to inquire about the lepers in the Yakut area and about the healing herb. Miss Marsden and Miss Fild did meet one of the Yakut merchants in Irbit and had a thorough talk with him. Although this merchant did not know much about the herb, he provided some useful information about the Yakut area and he also told about horrible conditions in the places where the lepers lived.
From Irbit Miss Marsden and her fellow traveler went to Tyumen, where they stayed for a week with an English family living there. The journey was so tiring, that Miss Marsden had to stay in bed for a few days. Having recuperated, they carried on to Tobolsk and further on to Omsk, riding on a sleigh along a very poor road, exposed to biting frosts and chilling-to-the-marrow winds. Exhausted and frozen to death, both of the women reached Omsk, where they were met by Governor General Sannikov, whose hospitable family took care of the poor women. Miss Fild, who was the only member of the team who could speak both English and Russian, got seriously ill on the way and had to discontinue the journey. That was a serious loss for the expedition, because from that moment Miss Marsden did not hear a single word in her mother tongue until the end of the journey and had to communicate with the people she met and her traveler companions through a French-speaking interpreter and by gestures.
Having spent two weeks in the Governor’s house, Miss Marsden headed to Krasnoyarsk, accompanied by a few sleigh drivers and Mr. Vilenbakhov, a young officer who could speak some French. Roads were worsening with every mile the horses made. The sledges were often stuck in deep snow, despite being driven by up to seven horses. Besides, the travelers had to cross numerous rivers, which was really hazardous, because the ice had already started to melt, as the spring was coming to this part of Siberia. In Krasnoyarsk the sledges were substituted for the carts, but it did not make the trip more comfortable, as the road was in fact a perpetual chain of pits and bumps, so that the travelers had to experience interminable jerks and pushes.
In Irkutsk, where Miss Marsden arrived in the end of April, the local Governor Goremykin convened a committee for organizing help to lepers, but the committee did not make any decisions, pointing out that it would be necessary to wait for the results of Miss Marsden’s expedition. The next part of the journey from Irkutsk to Yakusk was made down the river Lena in a pauzok, a small barge without any shelter for the crew that was usually used for shipping grain or goods in high waters. In three weeks’ time, having undergone a terrible ordeal of storms and pouring rains, cold and wet nights, myriads of mosquitoes and centipedes, and all the inconveniences of traveling on the open deck, Miss Marsden arrived at Yakutsk. The local General Governor met her at the riverbank and invited her to his steamer, where he expressed his gratitude for the feats she had made and gave her a very warm and hospitable reception. The Governor spoke for a long time about the leprosy that affected many local people and made necessary arrangements for the further journey.
In Yakutsk Kate Marsden met the Right Reverend Milety, Yakutsk’s bishop, who took active part in all the preparations for the mission and set up a committee, consisting of the deputy governor, some clergymen and local medical officials, to make further arrangements for Miss Marsden’s trip into the depth of Siberian taiga to visit lepers there. Inspector Smirnov, who had recently visited some of the Yakut settlements, reported some gloomy details about the current state of the lepers in the taiga. Similar to many other primitive civilizations, the Yakut people regarded leprosy as a punishment that had come from the Gods on sinful people. Being scared of any contacts with lepers, the Yakuts would expel their relatives or neighbors with any suspicious manifestations of the disease far away into the taiga, where these miserable people soon turned into living corpses, doomed to spend the rest of their lives in a desolate place among similar wretched sufferers. Having been driven out from their families, the lepers were deprived of any rights and were banned from any communication with the outer world. They had to live alone or in small groups in primitive shelters away from the settlements, being exposed to terrible frosts of about minus 50 degrees in winters and tropical heat in summers, when billions of bloodthirsty insects attacked their festering wounds, torturing them until total exhaustion.
Miss Marsden was terrified with all the stories, but she was determined to continue the journey to see everything with her own eyes. The committee elaborated the route and equipped the expedition with horses, food, and other available supplies. The Right Reverend Milety gave Miss Marsden a few copies of the New Testament translated into Yakut and blessed her, saying that her mission was the most needed action for the pitiable lepers. He also gave her some samples of the herb she was looking for, though he added that he had not known for sure about the curative effect of the herb.
On June 10, 1891, Miss Marsden set off to the Vilyuisk area accompanied with the convoy of abut 30 men, including two Cossacks and a local official who could speak some French. Even today, the Vilyuisk area is a vast territory of primeval forests and swamps where traveling by a four-wheel-drive truck is regarded as an overland challenge. More than 110 years ago there were no roads or paths at all and there was no other possibility of going through the thick forest than to plough through on horseback. In order to help the expedition to get to the farthest lepers’ yurts, the local Yakut people laid a path for more than a thousand miles, breaking through the thick forest and laying log roads across marshes. The convoy rode in a string, often changing direction, trying to avoid boggy places, where the horses might have mired down, which was rather wearisome, because the horses constantly stumbled over the roots and logs. Besides, the taiga around was inhabited by bears, and although the Cossacks were trying to scare them away by firing their guns into the air, the horses often jerked aside, being frightened by the slightest snap of twigs. Miss Marsden, who had never ridden a horse before, had to sit on a wooden saddle, equipped only with a small cushion, and to hold her bridle tightly, trying to keep the horse steady on the path. Very soon, she suffered from the saddle sore and her hands were covered with bleeding corns, as the thin gloves she had put on worn out the first day of the trip.
Apart from that, myriads of midges, mosquitoes, and gadflies attacked both riders and horses. It was impossible to drive all those blood-sucking insects away by waving a hand, as the riders had to keep horses on the path with both hands. Thus in a few hours after the beginning of the journey, her neck and face swelled up after countless mosquito bites. During the whole journey around the Vilyuisk settlements and back, which lasted for about two months, she hardly had a chance to change clothes or have a proper wash. It was quite often that the clothes were soaked wet during the rains and Miss Marsden might have caught cold easily, though, to her great luck, it did not happen. A couple of times her companions made her drink some vodka in order to recuperate after cold night spent on the ground. However, she felt very bad after drinking alcohol. Later Miss Marsden wrote that the most difficult ordeal in that trip was to be in a company of 30 men whose language she could not understand, though all of them demonstrated genuine concern and provided all possible care for the whole period of the journey. Sometimes Miss Marsden had such unbearable headaches and cramps in her legs that she could not stay in the saddle. At these occasions, her traveling companions cautiously took her off the horse and carried her to the ground, where she lay almost unconscious for a few hours just to stand up again and proceed with the journey. Having no accurate information about the exact locations of lepers’ shacks, the expedition made a much longer way around the Vilyuisk area than it had been expected, having found about 80 lepers altogether in the taiga. When the heat became absolutely unbearable, they started riding at nights, halting at dawn, pitching a small tent, and setting up a campfire to keep mosquitoes and bears away.
Far away in the thick forest they were shown a primitive yurt that Yakut people used to make for the lepers driven away from the villages. It looked like a small hut built of thin logs with a small window without any glass, so that it was petty dark inside. When the travelers got in they felt difficulty in breathing, because the air was imbued with the musty smell of perspiration mixed with the reek of festering wounds and rotten fish, accompanied with the smell of cattle that lived in the same yurt. A dirty table and a couple of wooden benches were the only furniture in the hovel. The lepers did not have any linen or blankets, so that they had to sleep on the bare planks of the tables or benches, or even on the bare ground, wrapped up in rags, which were the only clothes they had. Such yurts were typical dwellings for the Yakut lepers, who had to live in these cramped and stinky places for years without any hope for better life, waiting for death to relieve their sufferings.
Hearing the people coming closer to them, some of the lepers came out of their shack to meet Miss Marsden, crossing themselves in tears and mumbling something she could not understand. After she had recovered of the first shock caused by the sight of their mutilated faces and bodies, Miss Marsden said prayers and distributed clothes, linen and food among the lepers.
Near Vilyuisk they met the local priest Ioann Vinokurov, who often visited lepers in the depths of the forest, providing some assistance to the unfortunate wretches. Together with this priest and a few men from the convoy, Miss Marsden rode approximately 30 miles away from Vilyuisk in an attempt to find a site suitable for the future colony for the lepers. They set off at night, trying to avoid the day heat, and explored the proposed place at moonlight. However, after a thorough inspection, the location was rejected as unsuitable for resettling the lepers, so that the expedition had to find a new site.
On July 3, 1891, Miss Marsden, the reverend Ioann Vinokurov, the interpreter, the local feldsher (medical official of lower rank), and a few more men, set off down the Vilyui river in a small boat, aiming to visit some lepers’ yurts in Sredne-Vilyuisk area. Approximately 20 miles down the river they were met by a number of Yakut people who brought 30 horses for carrying tents and supplies and the whole group went again into the taiga along a hardly visible path to find some other lepers’ hovels. Again and again the riders had to squeeze their way through the thick bush, being accompanied by the snapping of twigs made by bears, trying to hold the frightened horses steady and firing guns into the air, in order to keep bears away. Some miles away they saw a fire in the thicket and found a shanty where a very old leper had been living alone for a long time. Having heard the people coming, this poor old man, who could not walk due to the effects of the leprosy, crawled towards the riders, crying and saying prayers. Miss Marsden dismounted her horse, gave the old man some tea, sugar and bread, and tried to console him, promising that a new big house for lepers would be built soon and that together with other lepers he would be brought to the new settlement.
Then the travelers went on by a boat up the river between Vilyuisk and Sredne-Vilyuisk, seeking an appropriate site for the future colony and meeting lepers that lived in the vast area around the Yakut settlements. Sometimes Miss Marsden was so tired, that the Cossacks had to carry her to the riverbank in their hands and put her on the ground, where she immediately fell asleep. However, a few hours later she got up and insisted on resuming the journey. Near lake Gatiniyakskoye, approximately seven miles from a Yakut settlement, the expedition found two more small dirty yurts with a dozen of men, women, and children mutilated by the disease. Some of them had wooden sticks instead of legs; some others did not have hands; some others had pus-filled wounds. Again and again Miss Marsden was terrified with the appearance of these sufferers and the conditions of their living.
In Sredne-Vilyuisk they witnessed how the members of a Yakut family were expelling one of their relatives whose legs were covered with leprous ulcers into the taiga away from the settlement.
- “How will he get to his new place?” – asked Miss Marsden, having seen that the poor man could hardly walk.
- “He will do,” the relatives replied mercilessly.
- “But he might die on his way there,” objected Miss Marsden and insisted that some relatives should help the poor man and deliver him to the taiga yurt. In the end, the poor leper was put on a sledge driven by an ox and was driven to the forest escorted by his brother, who was shivering with fear.
She was told that the Yakut people were so afraid of their lepers, that sometimes their mercilessness was unbelievable. Once a woman covered with leprous ulcers was driven into the taiga by an ox, accompanied by a relative. The woman was tied with ropes onto the ox’s back, because she could neither walk nor hold the bridle properly. Suddenly, the ox bogged down in a swamp and started to drown. Having unbound the ropes, the leper woman tried to get out of the swamp, but failed and started shouting for help. However, the person who escorted her did not even try to rescue the poor martyr, because of the fear to catch the disease.
The fear of contacting lepers was typical not only among the Yakut people, but also among the Russians who lived in the area. The men who accompanied the mission were no exception. When Miss Marsden together with two Cossacks and the interpreter came closer to the lepers’ shacks, the rest of the men usually scattered in the forest and waited, watching nervously from a distance.
After visiting more than 80 lepers in their shacks, Kate Marsden returned to Yakutsk on July 31, where she met Reverend Miletiy again and told him about what she had seen during the two unforgettable months on horseback in the depths of the taiga. Having discussed plans for raising funds to facilitate construction of the colony for the Yakut lepers, she then set off down the Lena river to Irkutsk. The General-Governor of Irkutsk summoned a meeting where Miss Marsden reported her observations and appealed to the participants for the immediate help. The first donation of 1,500 rubles was collected right at the meeting. Very soon, owing to Miss Marsden’s steadfast activity, the total sum of the fund rose to 20,000 rubles.
In the beginning of October Miss Marsden left Yakutsk and headed for Tomsk, where she arrived in November. In Tomsk she continued appealing to the local authorities, trying to raise more funds for the Yakut lepers. She also had a meeting with the Mother Superior of the local Orthodox convent and told her about the terrible conditions of the lepers in the taiga. The Mother Superior promised to send some nuns to the Yakutsk area to take care of the lepers, provided the Orthodox Authorities gave their approval.
The way back to Moscow was much easier and all the hardships of the arduous journey were almost forgotten in Ufa, where Miss Marsden was very happy to see an engine and to find herself in a railway carriage after ten months spent in carts, sledges, boats, and on horseback. Her next stop was Samara. There she requested the Governor to call up local doctors for a meeting and made a report about her expedition to Vilyuisk. It turned out that a couple of weeks before that meeting a few lepers were driven from the city of Samara to the remote villages. Miss Marsden insisted that a special house for the lepers should be allocated and some funds for maintaining that house should be raised. Before Miss Marsden left Samara, the local lepers had been placed into the special house, though many city dwellers had been very angry about it. Miss Marsden explained to the local community that it would be much more reasonable to keep lepers in one place rather than to let the disease spread around in the remote villages.
In December she returned to Moscow and then went to St. Petersburg where she continued to raise funds for the lepers. The Empress, who accorded her a very warm welcome, promised to provide all possible assistance and introduced her to the top Russian nobility. Having heard details about Miss Marsden’s expedition, the Crown Prince Nikolai, future Russian Emperor Nikolai II, gave 5,000 rubles for starting the lepers’ colony. Ober-Procurator Pobedonostsev, the Synod’s top authoritative official, petitioned to the Synod to start raising money in favor of the Yalkut lepers in churches and personally donated 3,000 rubles to the newly set up fund.
Meanwhile, the Medical Department, the top administrative body in charge of the medical issues in the Russian Empire, elaborated a draft project for the future colony. It was planned that the colony would comprise ten houses for ten lepers in each, two hospitals for men and women, a church, a house for a doctor and two assistants, a house for nurses and other staff of the colony, a workshop, a bathhouse, and a mortuary. It was supposed that each of the houses would also have a small garden and a cattle-shed for two cows. Besides, a big kitchen garden was supposed to provide enough vegetables for the whole colony. The total cost of the project was estimated at 90,000 rubles. The necessary sum was raised quite soon and the colony was officially opened and consecrated on December 5, 1892. Inspired by Miss Marsden’s feat, five Russian nurses, members of Moscow Commune of Nurses “Utoli Moya Pechali” (Soothe My Sorrows) followed to Yakutsk to work for the colony.
The colony, which was the first such institution for lepers in Siberia, survived the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the Civil War, and existed until the beginning of 1960s, when it was reorganized and the last Yakut lepers were sent to be treated in the Irkutsk hospital for lepers. In fact, the colony inspired by the British nurse Kate Marsden became the first move in the long-lasting campaign for exterminating leprosy among the Yakut people.
Having returned to England, Miss Marsden continued her work on helping lepers and founded St. Francis Leper Guild in London. Later she gave lectures in Europe and in the United States, raising funds for charity, and wrote a book about her unforgettable journey titled On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers. As for the herb that motivated her to go to the remotest part of the Siberian taiga and to withstand all the hardships, Miss Marsden managed to find this herb in Siberia eventually and sent it to India. The herb, however, did not prove to have a curative effect, though it provided certain relief in some cases.
- Puteshestvie Miss Marsden to the Yakutsk Oblast [Traveling of Miss Marsden to the Yakutsk region], Moscow 1893.
- Anglichanka Ekaterina Marsden v Sibiri u Prokazhennykh [English Kate Marsden visiting lepers in Siberia] St. Petersburg 1894.
- Puteshestvie Angliiskoi Sestry Miloserdia v Yakutskuyu Oblast dlya Pomoshchi Prokazhennym [Traveling of an English Sister of Mercy to the Yakut region for helping the lepers], St. Petersburg 1892.
Yuri Bessonov is a Russian physician who works as a translator, independent researcher and a freelance journalist in the fields of nursing history and history of hospital care. He has carried out extensive research in the history of nursing in Russia and in some European countries.