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The Scandalous Life of Nurse and Adventurer Kate Marsden

Kate Marsden was a medical adventurer and advocate. While nursing wounded soldiers in the Russo-Turkish War in 1877, she first encountered the horrors of leprosy and became obsessed with finding a treatment. A doctor in Constantinople told her of an herb that grew in Siberia that was supposed to alleviate the disease, so Marsden became determined to go to Siberia. The problem was that Siberia was a wild and desolate area used for exile (which included leprosy sufferers). There was not yet a Transiberian Railway, so in 1891, she went on horseback and sled.

In many ways, Marsden fits the profile of a daring female explorer of the Victorian age. She went to Siberia to find a particular medicinal herb that she thought could cure leprosy, and to meet sufferers of the disease living in the Russian forest. Her advocacy for leprosy patients has since made her a local hero—there’s even a very large diamond named after her—but in her own time, her adventurousness, coupled with gossip about her personal life and sexual preference, brought her only infamy. After she returned from Siberia, she was vilified as a fabulist and an embezzler who had betrayed people who trusted her. Her critics questioned her motives for going to Sosnovka at all: What was she really after? Or was she just running away from something?

Read about Marsden's 11-month Siberian expedition, and the scandals that followed her afterward, at Atlas Obscura.

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