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18:58 | Apr 25 | 2012

Miss Mercy

A remarkable story of Kate Marsden.

On the International Women’s Day we normally not only honor women, but also commemorate distinguished representatives of the gentle sex of the past. The name of Kate Marsden, a British national who became a symbol of hope for many, is forever inscribed in the history of Yakutia. In 1891 she made a far and full of difficulties journey to Yakutia with only one objective in mind – to help lepers.

At a turning point
She was still a child when people were already saying that no one could take better care of a sick person than the little Katie. Since her early years the daughter of a well-off English lawyer had been surprising people around her by dreaming not of a beautiful love, but of kindness and peace. After she had reached the full age, she completely devoted herself to the service of taking care of sick and wounded by becoming a Red Cross sister of mercy.
In 1877 Kate Marsden, with a group of other “sisters”, was sent to the Russia – Turkey war to help the wounded Russian soldiers. This is where she first saw people suffering from leprosy (also known as lepra): two Bulgarians with their bodies in a half putrefied condition with suppurating ulcers on them. Later Kate would recall this moment identifying it as the turning point in her life. Deeply shocked, she sets off for Bulgaria, where she helps the lepers.

The panacea grows in Siberia
After the war Kate Marsden comes back to England and keeps working in a hospital. Then, for a tragic reason – her sister’s illness, she has to move to the New Zealand. This is where her long saga of searching for a medicine against the fatal disease started. Travelling around the world, she collects all the available information about the leprosy. But it was only after she had reached Constantinople that she occasionally learnt about a mysterious herb capable of curing the leprosy. And it could be found somewhere in the very heart of Siberia – in Yakutia.
And Kate Marsden sets off for Russia.
Having obtained a recommendation letter from the wife of the Emperor Alexander III, Maria, Miss Marsden goes in search of a miraculous medicine.

Without a hope for tomorrow
To understand why Kate Marsden’s visit was so important, one should know the conditions under which Yakut lepers lived at that time.
“The hell on Earth” – these are the most suitable words to describe their everyday life. Rejected by the society because of contamination risks, the incurables were joining together in small groups. As long as their condition allowed, they were making their living mostly fishing, but the catch was tragically too low to provide the livelihood. Even a healthy and strong person had to make extraordinary efforts to survive through the winter, let alone the lepers, whose ever progressing disease was literally making them putrefy while still alive and was devouring members of their bodies.
Living while understanding that your death will be really horrible. And that, being confined to stinking old yurts, where dead bodies lie next to those still alive…

From nasleg to nasleg
In the summer of 1891 Yakutia was full of rumors about a lady from a far-far South who had arrived with 100 horses. Yes, this was about Kate Marsden. Having spent some time in Yakutsk, she left for Vilyuysk, which was the place with the largest leper population. On her way she finds and visits all others dispersed all the way long in the most distant naslegs and nooks.
Imagine how surprised the lepers were being visited by a lady who personally bathed and dressed their wounds. Before leaving for a next leper colony Kate Marsden tried to do at least something to ease the life of the diseased, pointing out the need for help to local authorities.
But the main achievement of Kate Marsden’s 11 months visit was raising funds that were subsequently used for construction in the Khordogoy area of Vilyuysky ulus of an asylum for lepers, a so called leprosarium, which brought together lepers from all parts of Yakutia.
It continued to exist until all the patients were transferred to Irkutsk in 1960s.
An English woman Kate Marsden became a symbol of hope for many at the time. A sign of Yakutia’s entering a new phase – that of discoveries, a period when it would at last become part of the world.

Nikolai TATARINOV

Place of the dead
The lepers’ everyday life in the end of 19th century was well described by a Polish writer and scientist Waclaw Sieroszewski in his novel “The Depths of Misery”, which served as a basis for Alexei Balabanov’s film “Reka” (“The River”). None of the lepers had the right to return to the “bigger world”. Sometimes people were trying to at least somewhat ease the sufferers’ pains: they would leave food and provision at a considerable distance, give fishing gear. But if any of the fortuneless was found near a settlement of healthy people, there was a probability that he would simply be killed. And whenever a small leper colony died out, the whole area with all its compassion felt relieved. Though even long afterwards people would try to keep away from the place. They say even nowadays there are such “leprosy touched” places one should better stay away from.

Miraculous wormwood
The miraculous herb was most likely the Gmelin’s Wormwood, which is not capable of curing the leprosy, but can to some extent help in healing the leprosy ulcers.

Yakut lepers became known in New York
Having returned from Russia Kate Marsden established a fund toward the aid to lepers in London. Most of the fund’s money was directed to the Chief Prosecutor of the most Holy Synod Konstantin Pobedonostsev and subsequently used for construction of a leper colony near Vilyuysk. The Vilyuysk leprosarium had been functioning since then to be closed only in 1962.
Following her journey to Yakutia Kate wrote a travel narrative «On Sledge and Horseback to the Outcast Siberian Lepers», which was a great success. The book was published 12 times in London and in New York during the first three years alone.
In 1895 Kate Marsden founded St Francis Leper Guild. In 1914 she became a co-founder of the Museum of Natural History in Bexhill-On-Sea.
Kate Marsden died in 1931 and was buried in Hillingdon cemetery near London.

Facts

  • A big (55.6 carats) diamond found in Yakutia in 1991, the year that marked the 100th anniversary of Kate Marsden’s visit, was given the name «Sister of Mercy Kate Marsden».
  • Best students of the English Language Division of the Yakut State University receive a special scholarship named after Kate Marsden.
  • The 150th anniversary of Kate Marsden’s birth was celebrated in Yakutia in 2009. On the 13th of May, the legendary sister of mercy’s birthday, a foundation stone of the future monument to Marsden and the park in which the monument will be located was laid.
  • In June 2009 the premiere of a stage-play “Kate Marsden. An angel of Divine disposals” took place at the Sakha Theatre.
  • The Royal Geographical Society (England) holds some of Kate Marsden’s personal belongings, including an angel-shape golden brooch that had been received by Kate from the hands of Queen Victoria in 1892, and which in 1916 she gave to the Society as a gift. The Society also holds belongings it received after Kate’s death: medals, the pocket watch and the whistle she had been using during her journey to Yakutia.