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.
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.
nuff surfing for tonight....
I am so glad the question of how Mary Ingalls went blind has been solved. Now we can all get on with our lives and solve some of the slightly more pressing issues happening in the world..........
Must be a slow news day.
The real reason that she went blind was because she used to schropeschitzel with a weinerrammer and a bingailaos.
"...other books from the period"? Frankenstein??? Frankenstein was published 114 years years before Wilder's first book!
Maybe it was a logical fallacy of confusing cause and effect. She could have gotten sick, and then without proof they connected that sickness with the effect. People still do it. Some do certain things to bring luck, or pray for a miracle to cure someones sickness, and then they get over the sickness and attribute the cure to the praying, others have lucky numbers because they see a certain numerological coincidence and associate certain effects to it. It is one of the most common fallacies that people make in logic.
...except they point out that she had scarlet fever much earlier than the onset of the blindness, so the proximity argument does not make any sense.
Actually pal, it is caused by standing too close to liberal idiots like you. 🙂
Conservatives don't believe in science, they believe a magical sky daddy birthed the universe in seven days. That makes much more sense than liberal science.
Were you always this much a moron?
you're right about it is inaccurate that the world was created in 7 days,
it was SIX. The Creator rested on the seventh day.
Thank you for not letting such a mistake be overlooked & now corrected.
If you have read any of the books the Wilders developed for books read all
over the world, they are quite different that the shows scripts that were mostly
written for a 47 minute weekly show, mostly Landon's work.
Any very yound child hearing these stories especially before they
have access to independent use on internet, will surely develop
an imagination of how this country was once very different.
Example there was no ready food or homes, it had to be created
by those who came to build a life, a family and communities.
It was populated by many such Europeans seeking an independent life
in a pristine land that was opened for the taking from the Natives who already
lived here, whatever we may think of what ensued, it did happen. These are
recollections from personal experiences from what it was like from a child's
perspective, which would have at least a few inconsistencies, yes.
But I dare you to read it and not be charmed by her remembrances.
It is filled with the love for her father and mother, who were quite courageous
and very good at raising a family with very good values & treated neighbors
with good fellowship. They all contributed to what has made goodness in this
country. They were industrious, ingenious, educated each other & prospered
on every level. Thank you to the Ingalls & Wilder Families for this precious
gift and sharing it, thanks to a journalist who by the way was a woman, in times
when this was quite uncommon for women. ANd she gave us, our children, grandchildren
etc. something to reflect on from where we came from and what built this country into
many good things. If you came here after those times, you must know these times
of what it was like in a time when it was wide open & it was granted by the gov't.
I know this was catastrophic for the Natives here, but we all know this 20/2o looking
back. But here we are in a strange new world. Let's do right by it as best we can by
teaching our families to be happy, good, productive & build inwardly too. Thanks for
all these shares, the truth is in these shares somewhere to ferret out. I read all,
a few were very helpful to know from our vantage point NOW.
There had to be a world before there was "science"- what is there to study before it came into being? For all of our exploring and studying- which is good- we cannot create anything without the use of that which already exists. I would say "liberal science" is the squatter, and can only use what was here long before the the liberal (or anyone else). You can claim the intellectual high ground all you want, but the fact remains no one can create ground itself, or anything else that doesn't already exist in some form. Explain that, O Genius.
Wow. Talk about willy inaccurate. Most Christians belive in God and in science. The only bone of contention is evolution of man. And considering that the definitive "missing link" has never been found, we can all agree that it hasn't been found and is at best a hypothesis. Speaking as a scientist who is Christian...
........says the fool........
I got the fever for Scarlett Johansen!
Funny how when the show was on and I was a kid I thought she was so mature, yet beautiful. Now I look at her and wonder what she grew up looking like. I'll bet she's still hot, even after all that time.
That little girl in the middle was a CNBC financial news reporter and is now working at Fox Business Network. Really.
Where are you getting your info? The girl in the middle was actually played by twins. According to IMDB, neither have gone on to much after Little House folded.
Starting to feel my age, just realized the twins are over 40 years old now.
Please CNN, don't ruin my fond memories of Little House. It was one of my favorite shows and why Mary went blind is unimportant. We need more shows like Little House rather than the garbage and violence there is on TV today.
If the why is unimportant, then it shouldn't "ruin your childhood" to learn that the cause of her blindness may have been misattributed.
They're referring to the real Mary Ingalls, which has very little to do with any storylines on the LHOTP TV series. So it shouldn't traumatize your childhood memories by very much.
Can you publish anything that does not first appear in the (slightly tabloid, shall we say) Daily Mail UK?
Wow...thank you for that hard-hitting reporting. But, really CNN? Nothing more important happening in the world to make the headline of your website?
Yeah, the kids at Fox are shaking in their boots right now.
"You can go blind from Scarlet fever. I saw it on tv so it must be true." So much for emperical evidence, professor.
That was obviously a joke. Try developing a sense of humor, your pseudo-intellectual cretin. I guess I won't be seeing you in my Mensa chapter meetings.
I always assumed that she went blind from syphilis. There was no test for syphilis or treatment for the disease in the 19th century.
if it doesn't cause blindness or at least be a possibility, why is scarlet fever thought of as a cause of Helen Keller's blindness and/or deafness??
It is now believed that Helen Keller's blindness/deafness was a result of meningitis as well, rather than the scarlet fever.
Next up, history postgraduates put money into research tracking down the real reason Napoleon stuck his hand in his coat...
No one got shot... I guess it was a good day
I always wondered why the "Log Lady" on Twin Peaks carried around a log.
I'd like to see this much journalistic effort put into the Benghazi cover up.
Another mystery solved by CNN! King Richard III and Mary Ingalls can finally rest in peace. [sarcasm]
Doubt they knew back then what "viral meningoencephalitis" was. Perhaps they truly though it was scarlet fever. Odd news article..........
We all know it was Nelly's fault...
Now can we figure out what caused the little sister to fall down that hill at the beginning of every episode.
She'd just learned to walk and her mother put her shows on the wrong feet. True story.
Liberals will do everything in their power to destroy decency. Little House on the Prairie? Are you serious?
What intrigues me is that a Dr. spent many waking hours trying to figure out what caused a blindness many years ago. Written words in a book and a TV series. Not as if they were looking to cure this person but trying to figure out what caused it. I will say this, they will neve know the true answer, so why is this Dr. and news reporting this instead of talking about things we can do or try to deal with the living. I could understand reading and trying to understand medical jurnals but the little house on praire who told the story as she may have rememberd or added. The fact that a team was reserching this for un countless hours...Come on they could have spent that time helping people that couldn't afford it. No wonder medical expense has become so outragous. I suggest they try to reserch the Harry Potter series next maybe they could find a cure for warts.
Ever heard of a hobby? Doctors have them, too. She could have spent her spare time commenting on CNN articles. Instead she spent it looking into something that was interesting to her.
I actually appreciate this update as a fan of the LHOTP books. My daughter had scarlet fever in 1998 when she was 2 and had the rash, headache and earaches. I think all she had was antibiotics to clear it up. Been awhile so I don't remember the details, but it wasn't a big deal at all.
If you get strep throat (you go to a doc-in-a-box and they have a positive bacterial culture, not the viral infection), go ahead and get the $5 penicillin bottle (and finish it as directed!) to avoid that 1 in 100 chance of ruining your heart valves and having to see a doctor for heart disease for the rest of your life. It's easy, don't risk it.
its time to get a life
I don't understand all the sarcasm above. If you don't want to read something, don't read it. Just because you don't like an article, that doesn't mean it isn't of interest to someone. I think I learned something about scarlet fever from the article. Isn't that of some value? Quite obviously, there is more to CNN than world shattering news. Thank goodness. If you want only world shattering news listen to Rush or FOX.
Wait a minute, I thought Scarlet Fever was an old book or something and the chick went blind for do-in a priest?
Ummmmmm, why the heck am I supposed to care why Mary Ingalls went blind? Is this seriously headline breaking news?
and you care enough to click the link, and comment on the article.
I went to an eye dr. at 43 first time. I was having problem seeing so i decided to get my eyes checked. My grandfather had went blind from cataracs my father had them also. He asked why I was there and I told him and family history, he laughed.
He checked my eyes and said nothing is wrong. I went to another a year later, I had a stigmatism and he said I should have been wearing glasses my whole life. It was funny the major headaches I had been having all my life stopped but one Dr. chose not to care and one chose to care. Maybe we should start an Angies list for Dr., maybe we could bankrupt the ones that do not care.
Based on your family history "why" did you wait till 43 to see and eye doctor?
Angie's List does already include doctors.
Why isn't anyone talking about the fact that we were also told that Helen Keller may have been blind (and deaf) because of Scarlet Fever. That is still being reported as a possibility. So why not Mary Ingalls?
This show was notorious for such behavior. I remember an episode where a girl was made fun of for having a short leg and had corrective thicker soles on her shoes to compensate. She was coerced by that mean pigtailed girl to take her shoes off and go wading in the pond. She walked funny due to the shorter leg, but I thought ponds aren't flat on the bottom. They are totally uneven with rocks and branches and such. It would have been easy to walk there for her. I want to blame Landon but that unfair at this point.
That is why they put in that final episode where Little Joe died from pancreatic cancer.
What? The show didn't give Mary the fever or take away her eyesight. They're talking about the REAL Mary Ingalls and what took her sight. On the show Mary wasn't even sick when she started losing her sight. I hope you don't base your knowledge of the Ingalls family on the series because except for names and a few towns, there wasn't much that actually had to do with the real family.
I thought it was just because I'm stoned. This article is mesmerizing. How incoherent can one be?
why did Wilder change her sister's illness to scarlet fever? Because she couldn't spell viral meningoencephalitis!
I had no problems that I knew of that is why I waited.
pazke< I could understand your statement about a hobby and to each there own, but the article said she had a reserch team. I guess she could have made them take up her hobby.
What some people will do in order not to do anything creative. 100+ years only one thing needs to be said. "SO?"
As to why it was called Scarlet Fever, what is the likelihood that viral meningoencephalitis was either unknown to the persons treating the disease when Mary contracted it or that Laura herself, being a child at the time, may not have known the technical term but instead grew up thinking of it or hearing it referred to as "the fever" or scarlet fever, later including that understanding as fact in her books?
I hate to be a grinch, but I wonder how much federal research money was spent on ten years of inquiry into the blindness of a semi-fictional character out of a children's book more than a century old.
Actually , she is not a fictional character. This is where I have to support my wife. The Ingle's were a real family and all that you have seen on TV is actually as real as they can make it to be. When the series ended, they actually bulldozed the town to rubble so no one could film it. My wife is a history buff, she can take you back and find your ancestors way before 1492. She is that good.
You didn't realize that the Ingalls family was a real family? They're not talking about Mary-on-the-show, they're talking about the real Mary Ingalls, whose real life wasn't much like the show. And research into past illnesses takes place all the time, everywhere, to further knowledge of past epidemics, treatments and new breakthroughs.
The books were not fiction. I grew up near Plum Creek, in Minnesota, and the subject is well-known there.
This is history folks. We are learning why she went blind after the disease. Scarlet fever has been eradicated I believe, but is it the cause of most blindness? I had a blind friend that had no pupils. He could see lightness, no figures. Just knew if he was in the light or dark. Only blind guy I ever knew and a hell of a guitar player!
My mother was bald for the rest of herl life after she had what was called "scarlet fever" when she was in the third grade. Their house was put under quarantine. She wore a wig for the rest of her life til she passed away at 72 from diabetes complications. The stigma was awful for her. She never lost her eye sight or her mind.
What is interesting and somewhat misleading is the last bit about education of parents that scarlett fever is not so serious to cause blindness. While this may be true, scarlett fever can be serious for some children. My wife had scarlett fever which triggered her genetic predisposition for Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. She suffered extreme pain much earlier than she would have had she not had the scarlett fever. Had she not moved to a dryer climate she would have the bones and probably replacement joint today at the age of 39 of a 75 year old.
hahah this is a front page headlining story?
I see CNN's new leader is even more inept than the previous one was.
Fortunately, many people are not as dull as you are and find this research fascinating.
The real cause of Mary's blindness was that she found out Mike Landon had another wife & a bunch of other kids..... I would also like to know if the real Mary Ingalls was as hot as Melissa Sue Anderson? Did the Ingalls girls skinny dip in the creek nearby??
Inquiring minds want to know!!
Not concerning scarlett fever but I did watch an episode of Little House that said they treated a flu epidemic with quinine. I have had rheumetoid arthritis for 30 years. My medicine, Plaquenil, is quinine based and I never get the flu. Just wondering???
Thanks to TV commercials especially during the world news hour I have been alerted to the fact that I have the shingles lurking around inside of me. lol
Who hasn't had strep? So don't worry about going blind if you come down with scarlet fever.
Yep, but untreated it can lead to some serious heart problems.
As a Little House fan, this is OLD news! I read MANY years ago, that the real Mary Ingallls had meningitis, strokes, and diabetes that caused her blindness. Her face looks paralyzed in real photos I saw of her. All of the Ingalls sisters had diabetes and some believe they were infertile. Laura was married 60+ years yet only had 2 babies (one died). Carrie and Grace never had children, even though both married, and they suffered from malnutrition and diabetes. Rose, Laura's daughter, had a still-born son and had to have a hysterectomy after this birth because of very poor health and complications. We went to the real homes/farms in DeSmet, South Dakota and the guides said only about 3% of the television show was accurate to the books.
What a complete waste of research time. How about finding a cure for cancer?
Thanks, Mike. How about you obtaining an education?
This is all they can come up with to study? What a waste of time and money
Come on, Larry! who said this was all they could come up with to study? I'm sure they study different things but they aren't included in this story because it's not relevant. Don't get yourself all worked up by jumping to conclusions and then losing your temper.
This is all you could think of to post? You lazy, pathetic weakling!
Actually, I think this has a tangible benefit because it allows doctors to debunk a myth about Scarlet Fever with something more than an "I don't think so."
Why do you assume it was a waste of money. Research like this usually done by people on their own time and money.
"waah, waah, waah" – larry
Yeah – it's almost annoying as all that money they waste studying flies....
(yes, i am being sarcastic)
Larry, This doesnt sound like "funded" research. But it is news and important information regarding misinformation in the medical world. It is a good thing when urban myths are set to rest. Maybe you dont agree. but this will become important to you when / if you have kids.
Dear Larry, Knowledge is power. While you may think this information is not important to you, it may well be to someone else. It may be that this is just enough information for the parent of a sick child to realize that child has a serious condition that needs medical treatment, and not just a cold. There is knowledge out there that may one day save your life too. (For example heart disease, diabetes, or prostate cancer. Do you know the signs?)
Then why did you read the article? To make you feel better about how smart and intelligent you are? Good luck with that.
truly enjoyed this series as a youngster...however after some research I learned the TRUE meaning of the phrase "based upon the stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder".
A good many parts of the series stories were untrue.....i.e. Mary never married nor did she have a child. She lived with her parents & once they passed away she lived with her younger sister Carrie who married late in life & also had no children. "Pa ^ Ma" Inglass never adopted Albert or James & Cassandra & there was no baby Grace. Charles Ingalls Jr DID die in infancy however. The Oleson family was more than likely based on a similar family but apparently there was no horribly evil "Nellie". All these stories lines were just that...story liens to keep the series going & going.
As a kid who might have "wished" to be part of this "wonderful" supportive family.........sssiggghhhh
That is the typical response of people who do not understand anything about science.
The other usual response is, "I hope my tax dollars weren't wasted on that."
Sam Stone, you are my hero. That is exactly what I was thinking. LOL.
Larry – that was my thought as well.