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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In Wilder's unpublished memoir, "Pioneer Girl," there is no reference to Mary having scarlet fever the year she went blind.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.


soundoff (523 Responses)
  1. Kari

    They are talking about viral encephalitis here, not meningitis. Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain. I had viral encephalitis as a 17 years old. After a 2 week stay in the hospital and many weeks of recovery to get back my strength and balance, I realized I had a pronounced blind spot in the upper left-hand quadrant of my vision. The ophthalmologist said that it was possible due to the fact that my optic nerves were swollen (as was mentioned in the article about Mary). This blind spot did go away after about a year at which time the optic nerves went back to normal.

    February 3, 2016 at 10:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Shawn

    What about Helen Keller? Didn't scarlet fever as an infant cause her to lose both her sight and hearing?

    February 3, 2016 at 10:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Deb

      Helen Keller was born with the ability to see and hear. At 19 months old, she contracted an illness described by doctors as "an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain", which might have been scarlet fever or meningitis.[16] The illness left her both deaf and blind. At that time, she was able to communicate somewhat with Martha Washington,[17] the six-year-old daughter of the family cook, who understood her signs; by the age of seven, Keller had more than 60 home signs to communicate with her family.

      February 3, 2016 at 11:15 | Report abuse |
    • colllisa

      Again, not due to scarlet fever, which is a strep infection (usually of the the throat) and rash, which does not cause blindness or deafness, or meningioencephalitis.

      February 3, 2016 at 13:55 | Report abuse |
  3. InaI.

    This is non-sense – my mother lost one of her eyes due to a scarlet fever at a very young age!!!

    February 3, 2016 at 13:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • colllisa

      What do you not understand about "scarlet fever does not cause blindness." Whatever your mom told you caused her to "lose her eye" it was not due to scarlet fever.

      February 3, 2016 at 13:35 | Report abuse |
    • Connie

      @colllisa:

      From the article above:
      "Digging deeper, when researchers looked at epidemiological data from the time, they saw that most cases of blindness attributed to scarlet fever were temporary."

      What part of this paragraph did YOU not understand?

      Scarlet Fever can and does occasionally cause blindness, though it is rare, and seldomly permanent. The fact is, it absolutely CAN and absolutely DOES cause blindness in some people.

      Now, depending upon the severity of the illness, the rash CAN spread into the eyes, thus causing a greater degree of damage, and considering Inal stated her (his?) MOTHER lost an eye AT A VERY YOUNG AGE due to SF, it is possible that, at the time, the knowledge for treating SF was not what it is today.

      SF TODAY is not something to fear, 50 years ago, it absolutely WAS something to fear and actually, it WAS considered to be QUITE deadly.

      January 31, 2017 at 08:42 | Report abuse |
  4. Debbie Wood

    My mother went temporarily blind when she was 9, after having German measles. She never got sick from it, was playing outside and felt fine until she started losing her vision. It did come back eventually, but she never got full vision back. She also survived polio as a child, temporarily paralized but with therapy, was able to walk again. She spent several years in leg braces.

    February 3, 2016 at 13:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. delfiteblu

    This is a surprise. I'm 69 and have read all the Little House books numerous times and I believed what they said; that she went blind from Scarlet Fever. (It was not portrayed as such on the TV show) I don't find this news earth shattering. I believe Rose; that when Laura wrote the book she said scarlet fever to make it easier to understand. If you remember, the books are written at about a third grade level; very simple. It makes perfect sense that she wouldn't go through some long involved explanation. It's fine with me. I still love Little House. I DON'T think this is the next Watergate. 🙂

    February 3, 2016 at 14:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • katzmum

      I agree with you happyERdoc, though it is interesting to understanding illness causes and end result.

      My 82 year old Mom and me LOVE Little House and the Wilder books!

      February 3, 2016 at 15:38 | Report abuse |
    • Jennifer

      Scarlet fever WAS used in the LHOTP television shows as the cause of her blindness. Mary was just examined by the doctor. Back up a little – this was her second exam she had with the doctor. As in different days. After the first exam, the doctor couldn't find anything. After the second exam, the doctor asked Charles if she had had any sicknesses as a child. He answered with "scarlet fever." The doctor then asked how severe it was. Charles didn't give severity as an answer. All he said was, "It was bad – it was scarlet fever.") The doctor immediately said she was going blind. So...there you go.

      February 3, 2016 at 17:34 | Report abuse |
  6. Bernard Barker

    Thank you "delfiteblu," I could have not said it any better myself!!!

    February 3, 2016 at 15:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. happyERdoc

    Haven't researched the Mary Ingalls illness, but I am living proof that scarlet fever or the associated fever of 108 damaged the vision and motor nerve in one of my eyes. Also, because the skin appears almost sunburned, and because the severity of the other symptoms demand the most attention, the scarlet fever rash is often not noticed or commented on by the presenting patient.

    February 3, 2016 at 15:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. DAN

    dr's and science (and many people on this site) are concerned about a tv show.......all TV is enhanced ( if not it doesn't sell ads)...they warn u in the beginning. And reality shows are true to life, unscripted too. LMAO

    February 3, 2016 at 16:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. CoLD MeTaL

    Because people can say "Scarlet Fever", and most people have a problem saying "viral meningoencephalitis" if they even knew anyone in Kansas that would know what that is at the time she got it.

    The scary part is a doctor 'student' basing an opinion on a TV show, when he has access to actual medical text books.

    February 3, 2016 at 17:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. carl mosconi

    She had many times asked her mom if she could just do it until she needed glasses.

    February 3, 2016 at 18:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. eriKa

    TO: carl mosconi: Your perverted humor is not welcome.

    February 4, 2016 at 00:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. dee

    It's been awhile since I've read the books but I thought Laura wrote that everyone in the family was sick and, if not for a doctor, might have died. Then she wrote something like, "Worst of all, Mary went blind." She also wrote that the family was sick due to picking berries and being stung by so many mosquitoes.

    Does anyone else remember this?

    February 4, 2016 at 02:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Tim

    Real reason she went blind is that the writers wrote it into the script.

    February 6, 2016 at 17:51 | Report abuse | Reply
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  16. Claire

    I do have to say scarlet fever is a very serious disease and can cause blindness. I think it probably has caused Mary's blindness especially since they didn't have the correct treatment back then. I think this article is a lie.

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    The literary and life lessons of that change remain the same, but for a decade, Dr. Beth A. Tarini wondered about the cause. When I was a medical student doing my pediatric rotation, she says, I asked my supervising doctor So, scarlet fever can make you go blind, right? and she said no. I argued Mary Ingalls was a real person. And it said in the book that scarlet fever made her go blind. But clinically, it didn t make sense. Dr. Tarini was curious enough to do some research at the time as a medical student, but she set her work aside for years. When she returned to it, she enlisted the help of numerous sources including two doctors, Carrie L. Byington and Jerome I. Finkelstein, along with Sarah S. Allexan, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, the Ingalls family historian Bill Anderson and the South Dakota Historical Society, to publish Blindness in Walnut Grove: How Did Mary Ingalls Lose Her Sight in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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