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The real reason Mary Ingalls went blind

Posted by on Feb. 4, 2013 at 11:14 PM
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1 mom liked this
The real reason Mary Ingalls went blind
Melissa Sue Anderson, right, portrayed Mary Ingalls in the 1970s NBC TV show "Little House on the Prairie."
February 4th, 2013
10:47 AM ET

The real reason Mary Ingalls went blind

If you watched "Little House on the Prairie," chances are you remember the story of Mary Ingalls.

The television show and popular book series drew on the real-life experiences of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Mary, Laura's sister, went blind as a teenager after contracting scarlet fever, according to the story. Now a team of medical researchers are raising questions about whether that's true.

Dr. Beth Tarini, one of the co-authors of the paper, became intrigued by the question as a medical student.

"I was in my pediatrics rotation. We were talking about scarlet fever, and I said, 'Oh, scarlet fever makes you go blind. Mary Ingalls went blind from it,'" recalls Tarini, who is now an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan. My supervisor said, "I don't think so."

Tarini started doing research. Over the course of 10 years, she and her team of researchers, pored over old papers and letters written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, local newspaper accounts of Mary's illness and epidemiological data on blindness and infectious disease in the late 19th century. What they found was intriguing.


In Wilder's unpublished memoir, "Pioneer Girl," there is no reference to Mary having scarlet fever the year she went blind. (She did have scarlet fever when she was much younger.) "She never says scarlet fever. She never says rash," Tarini says, pointing out the rash is a telltale sign of scarlet fever.

Digging deeper, when researchers looked at epidemiological data from the time, they saw that most cases of blindness attributed to scarlet fever were temporary. In addition, newspaper accounts of Mary's illness report "severe headaches" and one side of her face being partially paralyzed.

Finally, and perhaps the most important piece of evidence, in a letter Wilder wrote to her daughter, Rose, right before her book "By the Shores of Silver Lake" was published, she makes reference "some sort of spinal sickness". The letter also mentions that Mary saw a specialist in Chicago who said "the nerves of her eyes were paralyzed and there was no hope."

Diagnosis by these disease detectives: viral meningoencephalitis, which causes inflammation of the brain and the meninges, the membrane that covers the brain. In severe cases, it can cause inflammation of the optic nerve that can result in a slow and progressive loss of sight.

It may not be the biggest bombshell to hit the medical world, but to "Little House" fans, the question remains: why did Wilder change her sister's illness to scarlet fever? The study authors believe it could be because Wilder and her editors thought scarlet fever would be more relatable to her readers. Scarlet fever is mentioned in other books from the period, including "Little Women" and "Frankenstein."

But there is also an important wider medical lesson we can learn from this research. Today, about 10% of people infected with strep get scarlet fever, says Tarini. It is easily treatable. But because the cultural reference to scarlet fever is so ingrained in our culture, people assume it is very dangerous. "People read as children that scarlet fever makes you go blind," says Tarini. "Parents look concerned ... so I have to debunk it in the office."

The study was published Monday in this week's edition of the journal Pediatrics.

North West Passage

by on Feb. 4, 2013 at 11:14 PM
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lga1965
by on Feb. 4, 2013 at 11:17 PM
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 Interesting.

I loved those books.

justahousewife
by Member on Feb. 4, 2013 at 11:21 PM
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I love info like this. It's one of those "did you know?" that no one knows. :-)
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Whaaaaaa....O.o
by on Feb. 4, 2013 at 11:24 PM
My oldest had scarlet fever when she was 2. She ran such a high fever it scared the living day lights out if me. I took her straight to the er where they gave her a shot of antibiotics. She wasn't old enough to tell me her throat hurt. And she didn't run any fever until that day. Or have any signs of strep that I could see. The dr now says that she runs a greater chance at getting strep because she had scarlet fever. And you better believe if either one of my kids complain of a sore throat, I am watching it like a hawk. And 9 times out of 10 I take them to the dr to make sure.
krysstizzle
by on Feb. 4, 2013 at 11:24 PM

Holy cow! I had no idea!

I re-read the whole series over Christmas break with the boys. I love those books so much. 

This is so interesting. I guess I never thought to investigate further into scarlett fever and whether or not it causes blindness. Crazy. 


SEEKEROFSHELLS
by Platinum Member on Feb. 4, 2013 at 11:30 PM

Bump!

SEEKEROFSHELLS
by Platinum Member on Feb. 4, 2013 at 11:41 PM

 My oldest son had a high fever and got a rash. Got him to the doctor and that's what he had. He was young like about two. When the doctor said Scarlet Fever I about fainted. He said no, it's OK. Antibiotics will take care of this. It is strep with a rash. This kid got lots of ear infections. Thankfully he never got strep again. My pedi led the charge with NO antibiotics for children unless absolutely necessary. This was 28 years ago when kids came in with a cold and you got a BIG bottle of amoxicillian. That was standard. My son is 30 and has a pretty good immune system today. 


Quoting Whaaaaaa....O.o:

My oldest had scarlet fever when she was 2. She ran such a high fever it scared the living day lights out if me. I took her straight to the er where they gave her a shot of antibiotics. She wasn't old enough to tell me her throat hurt. And she didn't run any fever until that day. Or have any signs of strep that I could see. The dr now says that she runs a greater chance at getting strep because she had scarlet fever. And you better believe if either one of my kids complain of a sore throat, I am watching it like a hawk. And 9 times out of 10 I take them to the dr to make sure.



Mama2JoshKatie
by Bronze Member on Feb. 4, 2013 at 11:43 PM
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That's interesting! Maybe they just weren't exactly sure what caused her blindness so it was easier to attribute it to the scarlet fever she had when she was younger. Maybe it's not that Laura made it up but it's what she had always been told growing up. Ma and Pa could have made it up or the doctor could have given the wrong diagnosis. Of course it is possible Laura just put that in there to make it more relatable to the readers then viral meningoencephalitis. I love stuff like this.

glitterteaz
by Ruby Member on Feb. 4, 2013 at 11:44 PM

cool I read all those books as a child

jllcali
by Jane on Feb. 5, 2013 at 12:06 AM
That is cool. Very interesting.
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mehamil1
by Platinum Member on Feb. 5, 2013 at 12:17 AM
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Those books and Heidi were my favorite books as a child. Little House in the Big Woods and the book about her husbands childhood were the two best. I read those over and over again. I know that time period was not the greatest for many people, but I longed for that kind of freedom. The prairie. It was back breaking work but those people didn't seem unhappy. 

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