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.
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.
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Stories "based on" real life people get changed all the time to make a better or more relatable story.
Yankee Doodle Dandy was about the life of George M. Cohan, but many facts about his life were altered for the movie. In the movie, he was older than his sister. In real life, he was younger. At that time, the studios thought it made a better picture of American life if the son was older than the daughter. They also left out a big scandal where he sided with management in a huge theatre strike. Since that would paint him in a bad light, the movie left it out.
These changes to "the real story" happen all the time.
"Stories "based on" real life people get changed all the time to make a better or more relatable story."
This is exactly why I don't believe in the Bible. I'm not hating on religion, but I will hate on the Bible any day of the week.
Jordan: Why hate on the bible? It is just a book that tells a story from the perspective of many people===and like most perspectives, the version changes some as each person tells HIS story. I love the bible because no where on earth do all the subjects of human and some deity nature get covered from incest to sodomy to vengeance to pettiness to scheming and lying to murder and plots within plots–nothing is left out. Religion on the other hand is man made manipulation of any faith's holy texts usually for the benefit of a person or an organization. The bible is just a road map and a book of morals and cautionary tales–Religion is what happens when the bible is used to sway a crowd to support and follow and believe in a way of life usually created and designed NOT by the bible, but by a man who wants a certain kind of power.
BTW–REligion is responsible for the Crusades on both sides and for many religious related wars–NOT the bible.
Truth is some times never said out loud for many reasons, is this case my guess is MONEY an how to pray on the viewing public who are the intended target in make of this movie, MONEY SPEAKS AN BULL SH– WALKS.
prey not pray
Who made money off of saying Laura had Scarlet Fever instead of viral meningoencephalitis? Who was preyed on? I don't understand your comment at all.
I'm guessing that they used scarlet fever because everyone could spell it and knew what it was.
What movie are you talking about? There was a TV show, but long before that there was the books written by Mary Ingalls Wilder. I highly doubt she changed the cause of her sister's blindness from viral meningoencephalitis to scarlet fever to prey on the public. You are an idiot.
You are not using the cliche correctly. It should be "Money talks and B.S. walks." It is supposed to rhyme. Besides, she probably took a little artistic license with the illness because she thought it made it more relatable, not to "pray" on anyone. That's how writers write, and she was right!
Mary Ingalls Wilder? wait Laura...
Laura Ingalls Wilder, not Mary. (derp)
Pored. Not poured.
Exactly, Jane. Many people get this wrong.
That's been fixed, Jane. And thanks! Ashley Hayes, CNN
Oh, I see the word police is out again!
Yes, DeeDee, word police. They are needed now more than ever, since news organizations have decided it's cheaper to apologize than to get it right in the first place. They fired the good proofreaders and editors and rely on the public (the word police) to do that work for free. It didn't used to be that way.
And now, with iReports, they even get news done for them for free.
Laura Ingalls went blind because "Head of the class" was overtaking it in the ratings, as Howard Hesseman said on the tonight show "as soon as our ratings went up Michael Landon blinded a child"
1. You got the wrong character, Laura Ingalls did not go blind, her sister did
2. Mary Ingalls went blind in real life, no whether the show chose to air that story at a particular time might be a problem the fact is that the blindness is a historical event that actually occurred.
This would have been difficult considering LHotP wrapped in 1983 and HotC didn't start until 1986.
hahaha jumped the shark
Bill Posters will be prosecuted.
The reason why your humor is so funny, is the dumbos that posted correcting you. They lost out on the absurdity of Howard Hessman, the pop culture reference to "Head of the Class" vs. say, "WKRP", but the astute use of him using Tonight Show as the venue of airing such a remark. Further, had they noticed the gist of the story says scarlet fever is the more easily related disease, they would have also figured out the use of more popular character Laura Ingalls vs. the much hotter, but not as well known Mary Ingalls. Not to mention, that Howard Hessman was known as Johnny Fever in "WKRP"...your humor hit the nail on the head on so many levels, it is such a shame the IDIOTs didn't chuckle along.
It was Mary that went blind. It is in the books and it really happened! Michael Landon did not make it up to assist the ratings of the TV show. That is ridiculous!
I've endured countless blood tests, ultrasounds, MRIs, and many unpleasant examinations by no less than seven different doctors. However, not one of them could figure out what was going on with my body. All of this was done last year when "modern medicine" and "expert" knowledge was available. So what I gather from this article is that I should have my family write a few letters mentioning my problems, and in a hundred years, without having anyone look at my body or medical records, a diagnosis can be made.
No, that is not what you should of got out of reading this article. You seem to have some anger and frustration issues with your own personal life you should work out though. Have a good one.
Have you had a colonoscopy? I say that because, I was suffering problems breathing, went to 2 emergency rooms, told I was fine and nothing was wrong. On my third visit they ordered a colonoscopy which came out fine.. I still couldn't breath, but at least my colon was clean. I spent a month trying to learn to breath through my colon until they discovered it was a problem with my throat... hmmm, go figure.
You just found out why they, the medical field in general refer to most of their activities as a Medical Practice.
While the end result may be a cure or treatment, they are still practicing.
Yeah, it's amazing how these so-called experts can make a definitive diagnosis based on a couple of sentences in a book when doctors can have all these advanced tests and still can't tell the difference between up and down.
Rating win out little house was a better series is my opinion.
I was raised by my great grandmother. She lived about 15 miles away from the Ingalls family and knew them casually. She contracted Scarlet Fever at that time too and though her face was also paralyzed on one side and her heart was weakened it did not seem to affect her eyesight.
Laura's mother also had another baby among the children in the books, that died early, under, or just over, a year, but no mention of him either. Stories are only based on real life, some things were changed, or left out. I imagine, for a book written towards children, scarlet fever was an easier concept to understand than Meningo....whatever it is. lol
I don't recall it being addressed in the books but I'm pretty sure it was in the series. Early on...Laura ran away because she thought it was her fault? I could be mixing it that up though.
Yes, there was an episode when Mrs. Ingalls had a son. Laura was jealous and she prayed the baby would die. Guess what? He did. She felt so horrible, she ran away. Ended up on a mountain with Ernest Borgnine in a 2 part episode. Don't worry though, Pa and Mr. Edwards found her.
Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I loved that show (and the books) as a kid!
I dont understand if this is saying the TV show wasnt true to the book? I'm pretty sure they didn't actually blow up walnut grove in real life either. Confused.
lol. And I always wondered (1) if the real Pa Ingalls cried as often as Michael Landon did; and (2) if the real Laura was as partial to eyeliner as Melissa Gilbert.
No – Walnut Grove's still here.
This is fascinating. Medical mysteries solved always catch my interest.
To those surprised that the television series took a poetic license with the truth, Hollywood's known for that trick. For those who wish for verisimitude in television and film, there are docudramas and biographies on PBS.
Television did not take poetic license, the accounts of scarlet fever were from the author, Laura Ingalls Wilder. She, perhaps, accepted the diagnosis of the time.
At eight, my son landed in Childrens Hospital for 10 days with a rare and serious eye infection called orbital cellulitis, which in severe cases could cause blindness (and often did back in the 1800's) . There are many infections that cause orbital cellulitis, but in my sons case it was strep, the same agent that causes scarlet fever. The doctors emphasized that the whole reason they treat strep aggressively is because it used to cause so many different horrible health problems, including blindness, for those who contract aggressive strains of it like my son did.
Based on our experience with our son and what we know historically, Wilder may have changed the details because it would make a simpler, but very believable story that required less complex explanation that what really cause her blindness (less time down a story arc that isn't what's iinteresting).
Years ago I looked Laura I Wilder up on wiki, and I was surprised to see that her books were fiction.
I lost interest about four paragraphs in and gave up. Nobody wants to hear a life story. Get to the point.
I blame it on Doc Baker.
I knew the Ingalls family, nope it was west nile virus that made her blind. She got the virus while catching bullheads in the creek with Nellie
How interesting. Perhaps if you'd tell a joke of some kind your post might be funny.
Alfonzo still loved her though, or was it Almonzo
It was Carlito. Or was it Michael? Sonny? Fredo?
Um, Laura Ingalls admitted that it was meningitis decades ago. She said that her editor suggested that she change the diagnosis in the book for some reason- there were a lot of little editor changes made over the years. None of this is unknown to fans of the books and the family. I'm kind of astounded that they thought they had to do "detective work" to uncover something that is already common knowledge.
It was the 1800's. Doctors back then were basically guessing at everything. Medicine then was like psychology and chiropractic is now. Good lord, they didn't even have aspirin.
The ancient Egyptians used aspirin, genius.
Nineteenth Century people had a strange relationship with disease. To pass the time, they would invent diseases and then die of them. Stuff like Miliary fever. Abraham Lincoln's son, Tad, died of Pleurisy – something that doesn't actually kill people and isn't really a disease; it's a symtom. The worst was the dreaded Victorian Chill. Lucky Mary Ingalls never got that!
So she went blind from Scarlet Fever? No surprise. In the Nineteenth Century, you could go blind from... a lot of things.
I think it's interesting that it techically is POSSIBLE to become blind from the bacteria that causes strep throat/scarlet fever even if rare. We can't really know what caused her blindness as another person points out. I loved the books and I also read the biography which gives many more details than the books Laura wrote, which are of course fictionalized to make a better story.
Great story! Would love to know if you will do a story now on Helen Keller? What made her blind and deaf? Supposedly measles? Maybe her story was told truer than Wilders was. I think we should applaud our being spared all these diseases in the 20th and 21 centuries by the hard work of medical researchers everywhere. Lots of us have no idea how many children died from little illnesses we just take for granted. Measles, Mumps, Polio, etc.
I remember reading that Helen's blindness and deafness was because of what was then called 'acute congestion of the brain,' but doctors now speculate that it was some kind of encephalitis, just like with Mary Ingalls.
MLINE? She's ... MLINE?
I can attest that Scarlet Fever does not cause blindness. It does, however, cause many other issues such as heart disease, breakdown of the mitral and aortic valves. I had open heart surgery at 37 due to contracting Scarlet Fever when I was 12. It progressed to Rheumatic Fever and I have been paying the price ever since. If you suspect your child has Scarlet Fever, do not wait. Immediately take your child to the doctor or ER. Sooner the better.
Brian, I also had Scarlet Fever, at age 7. (I posted already a few minutes ago). I didnt have to have any type of surgery but i have mitral valve prolapse that they attributed to the infection cause by the scarlet fever/streptacoccos all those years ago.
Michael Landon – I Was A Teenage Werewolf
Werewolf deterrent – Garlic
Garlic can cause blindness
Did Melissa Sue Anderson pose in Playboy, or was it Mary Ellen from The Waltons?
It was Mary Ellen from the Waltons
I had scarlet fever as a child and although I am not blind, my eyesight was affected. I have had to wear glasses most of
I think it's safe to say that for some people, the truth is what they say it is, regardless of the facts. Remember, the aim of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her editor's was to sell books. Some of Tom Clancy's books have a grain or two of truth in them. . . . .
A make believe TV show based on fiction is now the basis for serious scientific research? Puh-leeze! It's like former Veep Dan Quayle getting upset over "Murphy Brown's" out-of-wedlock baby on the then popular comedy TV show. Yikes!!!!
The TV show was based on Laura Ingalls Wilder's life store.
@J wo, the second sentence of the article reads: "The television show and popular book series drew on the real-life experiences of Laura Ingalls Wilder."
Do you know what "real-life experiences" means?
You are either not very bright, or you must not have read far into the article before making your comment.
Do kids today read Wilder's books? I'd have thought they were too sedate for today's kids.
they should. I read these books to first, 2nd and third graders and they were fascinated. They didn't want me to stop at the end of chapters. Classic literature never goes out of style, that's why they're classics.
My son contracted Scarlet Fever in Kdg. and 1st grade....I thought it was a childhood disease and he would have immunity after the first time, wrong.....both times the rash started on his chest and spread downwards into the genitals, where it caused blisters and eventually peeling of the skin. It was terrible. His brother, 18 months older, never caught it from him even tho it's highly contagious. I was worried that it would cause sterility since it affected the genials, but thank God I have 2 grandsons from him...there was no issue with eyesight or anything else, he has worn corrective eyeglasses since 2nd grade but then so has his brother, who did not have Scarlet Fever...one more thing, the dr. called it "Scarletine", idk the difference. Def. take your child to the dr. immediately if you suspect they have it, it needs antibiotic treatment to get rid of the Strep....I believe the fevers were low-grade, not high.....
I always wondered if Mary had Intracraniel Hyper Tension IIH. My son recently had it and thought it was more realistic that many kids of that era may have had it and were mis diagnosed.
While I do feel sorry for Mary and how bad the issue of blindness was for her, I do sincerely wish from the bottom of my heart that something bad, similiar or worse then what happened to mary, would have ultimately happened to "NELLY" !!
Of all the people that deserved to have something bad happen to them it was Nelly and Harriet Olsen. I mean come on everyone know they were the biggest b@$%@ on that show. There its been 30 years but I am finally able to get that off my chest. I hated them then, I hate them still.
You should read Alison Arngrim's hysterical book, for more about Nellie!
Nelly was your typical spoiled, little suburb or in this case "townie" girl who is jealous of and therefore crusades against a prettier girl who is not originally a part of her clique. She is just a "mean girl" and no different than most mean girls–every grade has some–no matter who small or large the town or city. If your child cannot tell you who the mean girls are in his or her grade–it may be because your child IS that person. Mean girls and mean boys often have former or terminal mean parents==like begats like.
Strep causes scarlet fever too? It is also known to cause organ damage. In my case triggered Psoriasis. I had strep but my clinic wasn't open on Sundays. I waited another day but by MOnday when they finally opened and were able to diagnose me, my fingernails were turning black and falling off due to fungus. My Strep was so severe it triggered an auto-immune response, a certain kind of Psoriasis. .3% of the cases of Psoriasis are caused by Strep. Lucky for me it is the only type of psoriasis that clears up on its own, although it takes about 6 months. For 6 months I looked like I had the Chicken Pox over most of my body except my face and hands! I learned about this doing my own research at the library and refused treatments offered by the skin specialist (UV light exposure and cortizone). In 6 months I was fine. His treatments might have caused me additional and worse problems for example 7% of the patients undergoing UV light treatment, develop skin cancer within 5 years.
Ah, the power of literature. And this is perhaps the most harmless of the misinformation it can distribute.
Regardless of how Mary got blind, it was really good story telling. LHOTP was a really good show. Oh and why didn't Nells Olson just leave Harriet?
good to know..It will make my viewing of Little House , much more enjoyable~!!
accuracy counts~! :"+}
This has nothing to do with the television show. IT is about the REAL LIFE Mary and how she went blind. And there are many of us interested in it. The books were based on real life, though a bit fictionalized. The TV show was only loosely based on the characters and not true life at all.
She took poetic license to call it something else than the scientific name for it. I'm blind like my partner and we see nothing with using Scarlet Fever cause it normalizes it in a way. I wouldn't want peoplto knowthat have Lebers cause that souns lik a disease that could spread or something.
So it's all a lie? Burn her books and drag her on to Oprah.
And just how many if any of our tax dollars went to fund this assine study?
Laura Ingalls Wilder's stories take place in the latter part of the 19th century. Just because we can diagnose Mary's illness now, in the 21st century, doesn't mean they knew what it was back then. There are a couple of childhood viral illnesses that can cause blindness besides viral meningitis and encephalitis, chiefly measles and chicken pox. The average lay person today can't always tell them all apart, why should we expect that Laura and her family would have known the right diagnosis, even if a specialist in Chicago told them her optic nerve was paralyzed?
So Laura called it scarlet fever (which is not viral, but bacterial in origin) because back then nobody ever heard of viral meningoencephalitis, but everyone had heard of scarlet fever.
Whoops. Another right wing lie uncovered. 🙂
Aghh! Political desperation just looks like political desperation no matter how you dress it. Troll.
I've been an LIW fan for a long time–the books not the fictional show. The true cause of Mary's blindness is old news. It's a shame the article is accompanied by a picture of TV actresses instead of the real people. It's not hard to find a picture of Laura, Carrie and Mary together.
I know! I can't believe someone would write such a crappy article. Laura herself admitted to the real cause in the 30s or 40s. This is extraordinarily old news.
Now that was newsworthy right there, good job CNN....good grief.
I love Little House. A wholesome show. Also see http://www.180movie.com/
"people assume it is very dangerous"
I wonder if this person has ever heard of rheumatic fever a sometimes downstream event that damages your heart valves and makes you susceptible to valvular disease for life.
I blame the writers
Way to report the important stories of the day CNN. Good thing you got rid of your investigative journalism division (sarcasm).
Is this article for real? Has television ruined our lives forever?
Yawn!... Slow news day.
I agree......slow news day?
That modern day Doctor should have been born at that time period-we would have had his expert annalysis and have no need to have this puzzle.
They can't, and shouldn't, all be about...well, whatever it is you want them to always be about.
Meki60, maybe it's not a major breaking-news piece, but "has television ruined our lives forever?" Really? Good grief. Get over it.
They were also books...TV has ruined whose life?
Here is the reason the character went blind: the scriptwriters wrote it that way. Ok, we can all go home now.
Again, not about the television show. The script writers didn't make anyone go blind. The Ingalls family existed in real life and Mary really went blind. Laura Ingalls wrote books based on her life. The TV show was loosely based on the books and utterly fiction.
While I appreciate the investigators determining that it was not Scarlet Fever that made Mary go blind, I, as a childhood fan of all the books and the tv series, really don't care that the disease was mis-represented. An 11 yr old reader isnt going to care either. I will, however, dispute your statement in your article that Scarlet Fever is easily treatable, and not as dangerous as believed. I had Scarlet Fever as a 7 yr old girl in 1972. I got severely ill for over a week with terrible fever, earaches, headaches so bad that I could barely lift my head up from the pillow to drink or eat, and was left with a heart murmur that they attributed to the illness. I had never before been that sick. They almost put me in the hospital because I was too sick to even go to the doctors office but my father's friend who was a family doctor was kind enough to come to the house to see me several times and administer medicine, etc. If it werent for him I would have been in the hospital.So before you go and say Scarlet Fever isn't dangerous, maybe you should take a poll of those of us who have had it. JMHO.
Medicine has made a few advances in the past 40 years. And a disease can be easily treatable and not a big deal for most people, but affect other people in a much greater way (influenza being one example).
Yes, because 1972 medicine is the same as 2013 medicine.
I agree with you. As a 7 year old little girl, reading these books, Scarlet Fever was probably much easier for me to understand than "viral meningoencephalitis." Loved all of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books as a child, and will hope that my now 2 year old daughter reads them as she's growing up. 🙂
I agree with you. My mother had scarlet fever as a young girl. She died from severe liver disease that the doctors attributed to her bout with scarlet fever.
There are quite a few illnesses that were a big deal in 1972, that are not a big deal now.
"Is" is present tense. 1972 is in the past and isn't "is."
WOW...really. Do you really believe that the same diseases 40 years ago have the same affect today with modern medicine. Small pox killed millions just a few decades ago, and now it is eradicated from the planet. Today it only exists in laboratory's. How big of a deal was AIDS and HIV in 1982?
Please PLEASE tell me that's not true.
Mary – Melissa Sue Anderson – has aged well.
Half-pint – Melissa Gilbert – has had her body injected with so much silicone and botox, she doesn't look human.
I want Melissa Sue , even today.