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In Wilder's unpublished memoir, "Pioneer Girl," there is no reference to Mary having scarlet fever the year she went blind.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 (1,771 Responses)
  1. 1972 Maserati Boomerang


    May 15, 2021 at 15:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. 5 bedroom homes for sale near me

    I blog quite often and I really appreciate your information. This article has really peaked my interest. I am going to book mark your website and keep checking for new details about once per week. I subscribed to your Feed as well.


    May 15, 2021 at 16:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Local Marketing Associations


    May 15, 2021 at 19:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. avana

    buy avanafil online avanafil india

    May 15, 2021 at 21:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Aika Forums

    Hello there! This post couldn’t be written any better! Looking through this article reminds me of my previous roommate! He constantly kept preaching about this. I'll forward this post to him. Pretty sure he will have a very good read. Many thanks for sharing!


    May 15, 2021 at 23:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Video Marketing Firms

    Having read this I believed it was extremely enlightening. I appreciate you finding the time and effort to put this content together. I once again find myself personally spending way too much time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worth it!


    May 16, 2021 at 00:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Seo Marketing Business


    May 16, 2021 at 00:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Local Marketing Jobs


    May 16, 2021 at 02:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Aika Online Download


    May 16, 2021 at 05:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Social Media Marketing Agency Orange County


    May 16, 2021 at 09:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Mercedes Benz Dealer Service Sprinter Near Me 91605


    May 16, 2021 at 10:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Chevy Van Repair Panels

    Very good post. I absolutely appreciate this website. Keep it up!


    May 16, 2021 at 13:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Ford Connect Van Floor Repair

    I'd like to thank you for the efforts you've put in penning this blog. I really hope to view the same high-grade content from you later on as well. In fact, your creative writing abilities has inspired me to get my own, personal site now 😉


    May 16, 2021 at 13:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Dodge Van Repair

    Having read this I thought it was really enlightening. I appreciate you spending some time and energy to put this content together. I once again find myself spending a lot of time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worth it!


    May 16, 2021 at 14:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Sprinter Valve Body Repair

    This blog was... how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I've found something that helped me. Many thanks!


    May 16, 2021 at 15:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Sprinter Rust Repair Panels

    This site was... how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I've found something that helped me. Appreciate it!


    May 16, 2021 at 15:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Mercedes Sprinter Steering Gear Repair


    May 16, 2021 at 16:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Dodge Sprinter Repair Shop

    An intriguing discussion is worth comment. I do think that you ought to publish more on this issue, it may not be a taboo subject but typically folks don't speak about such topics. To the next! Best wishes!!


    May 16, 2021 at 19:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Handicap Van Ramp Repair


    May 16, 2021 at 19:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. 2005 Dodge Sprinter 2500 A/C Heater Controls Repair


    May 16, 2021 at 20:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Conversion Van Screen Repair

    I was excited to find this site. I want to to thank you for your time due to this fantastic read!! I definitely appreciated every bit of it and I have you book-marked to look at new information in your blog.


    May 16, 2021 at 20:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Mb Sprinter Blind Spot Detection Repair


    May 16, 2021 at 20:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Mercedes Benz Sprinter Rv Service Locations

    Very good info. Lucky me I discovered your blog by chance (stumbleupon). I have bookmarked it for later!


    May 16, 2021 at 23:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Maserati Creampie

    Greetings! Very helpful advice in this particular article! It's the little changes that produce the largest changes. Thanks a lot for sharing!


    May 17, 2021 at 00:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Silver Maserati


    May 17, 2021 at 00:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Service A Mercedes Sprinter


    May 17, 2021 at 01:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Maserati Prices


    May 17, 2021 at 02:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Sprinter Blower Fan Repair Near Me


    May 17, 2021 at 02:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Art Van Repair

    Greetings! Very useful advice within this post! It's the little changes that will make the largest changes. Thanks for sharing!


    May 17, 2021 at 04:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Repair Shop For Mercedes Sprinter Vans

    Your style is so unique in comparison to other people I have read stuff from. Thanks for posting when you've got the opportunity, Guess I'll just bookmark this site.


    May 17, 2021 at 04:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Mercedes Sprinter Van Service Near Me

    Oh my goodness! Amazing article dude! Thanks, However I am having troubles with your RSS. I don’t know the reason why I can't subscribe to it. Is there anyone else having similar RSS issues? Anyone that knows the solution can you kindly respond? Thanks!!


    May 17, 2021 at 04:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Wheelchair Van Repair Near Me


    May 17, 2021 at 10:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Repair Sprinter

    After going over a handful of the blog posts on your website, I really appreciate your way of blogging. I bookmarked it to my bookmark site list and will be checking back in the near future. Take a look at my website as well and tell me your opinion.


    May 17, 2021 at 11:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Sprinter Alignent Repair

    I need to to thank you for this great read!! I definitely loved every bit of it. I've got you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post…


    May 17, 2021 at 11:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Frieghtliner Sprinter Abs Module Repair

    I quite like looking through an article that can make men and women think. Also, thanks for allowing me to comment!


    May 17, 2021 at 12:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. 2006 Sprinter Transmion Repair


    May 17, 2021 at 13:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Maserati Biturbo Near Me


    May 17, 2021 at 13:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. RV Slide Out Los Angeles

    A fascinating discussion is worth comment. I do believe that you ought to publish more about this topic, it may not be a taboo subject but typically people don't discuss these subjects. To the next! Many thanks!!


    May 17, 2021 at 13:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. RV Couches Los Angeles

    Pretty! This has been an extremely wonderful article. Thank you for providing this information.


    May 17, 2021 at 14:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Club Maserati

    Hi! I simply want to give you a huge thumbs up for the great information you have right here on this post. I'll be returning to your blog for more soon.


    May 17, 2021 at 14:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. rv parts close to me


    May 17, 2021 at 15:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. RV Inspection Near Me


    May 17, 2021 at 15:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. RV Restoration Orange County


    May 17, 2021 at 16:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Philip Carback

    There is definately a great deal to know about this issue. I love all the points you have made.


    May 17, 2021 at 20:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Maserati Granturismo Lease Specials

    I was pretty pleased to uncover this website. I want to to thank you for your time just for this fantastic read!! I definitely liked every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new information on your website.


    May 17, 2021 at 21:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. geico painting commercial


    May 18, 2021 at 02:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. rv refrigerator repair company

    This is the right webpage for anybody who hopes to find out about this topic. You realize a whole lot its almost hard to argue with you (not that I actually will need to…HaHa). You certainly put a brand new spin on a topic that has been discussed for ages. Wonderful stuff, just wonderful!


    May 18, 2021 at 09:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. printing

    Thank you a bunch for sharing this with all people you really understand what you
    are talking about! Bookmarked. Kindly additionally consult with my site
    =). We can have a hyperlink trade contract between us

    May 18, 2021 at 14:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Gueuze Beer


    May 18, 2021 at 14:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. Maserati Suv Price 2019

    I have to thank you for the efforts you have put in penning this website. I'm hoping to view the same high-grade blog posts from you later on as well. In truth, your creative writing abilities has inspired me to get my own site now 😉


    May 18, 2021 at 16:25 | Report abuse | Reply
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31

Leave a Reply to Dorris Emswiler


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.