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In Wilder's unpublished memoir, "Pioneer Girl," there is no reference to Mary having scarlet fever the year she went blind.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


    June 9, 2021 at 11:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Bibi Schade

    I truly love your site.. Pleasant colors & theme. Did you build this website yourself? Please reply back as Iím planning to create my own personal site and would love to know where you got this from or just what the theme is named. Cheers!

    June 9, 2021 at 11:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Ferdinand Marconi


    June 9, 2021 at 13:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Chang Kelzer

    Hi there! This blog post could not be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my previous roommate! He constantly kept preaching about this. I am going to send this article to him. Fairly certain he'll have a great read. Thank you for sharing!

    June 9, 2021 at 14:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Gino Haecker

    Howdy! I just would like to give you a huge thumbs up for your excellent info you've got right here on this post. I will be coming back to your blog for more soon.

    June 9, 2021 at 14:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Digital Marketing Consultant Near Me


    June 9, 2021 at 15:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Renna Olevera

    An intriguing discussion is worth comment. I do believe that you should publish more about this subject matter, it might not be a taboo matter but generally people do not talk about such topics. To the next! Cheers!!


    June 9, 2021 at 18:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Google Marketing Service


    June 9, 2021 at 19:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Gregoria Pacini


    June 9, 2021 at 20:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Deshawn Maduena


    June 9, 2021 at 21:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Eufemia Montey

    Everything is very open with a very clear clarification of the challenges. It was definitely informative. Your website is extremely helpful. Thanks for sharing!

    June 9, 2021 at 22:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Donte Miltz


    June 9, 2021 at 22:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. rv repair shops


    June 9, 2021 at 23:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Juliette Grimaldo

    Good article. I'm dealing with a few of these issues as well..


    June 10, 2021 at 01:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Bessie Kunsch


    June 10, 2021 at 01:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Rich Doiel

    Your style is really unique compared to other folks I have read stuff from. Many thanks for posting when you have the opportunity, Guess I'll just bookmark this page.


    June 10, 2021 at 01:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. rv repair

    Good day! I could have sworn Iíve been to this website before but after going through a few of the articles I realized itís new to me. Anyhow, Iím certainly delighted I found it and Iíll be bookmarking it and checking back often!


    June 10, 2021 at 02:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Rubin Mangino


    June 10, 2021 at 04:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Chester Giordano

    I need to to thank you for this very good read!! I absolutely enjoyed every little bit of it. I've got you bookmarked to check out new stuff you postÖ

    June 10, 2021 at 08:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Stanford Gloodt


    June 10, 2021 at 09:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Kayleen Noy


    June 10, 2021 at 09:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. rv repair shop

    May I simply say what a relief to discover somebody that genuinely understands what they are discussing over the internet. You definitely understand how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More and more people should check this out and understand this side of your story. It's surprising you are not more popular since you definitely possess the gift.


    June 10, 2021 at 09:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Eliseo Greynolds

    Iím amazed, I have to admit. Seldom do I come across a blog thatís both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head. The issue is something not enough men and women are speaking intelligently about. I'm very happy that I found this during my hunt for something relating to this.


    June 10, 2021 at 09:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Kamilah Nasso


    June 10, 2021 at 11:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. rv repair

    Very good article. I'm going through many of these issues as well..


    June 10, 2021 at 12:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Newton Doucett


    June 10, 2021 at 12:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Leonard Gleaton

    The very next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesn't disappoint me just as much as this particular one. After all, Yes, it was my choice to read, nonetheless I really believed you would have something useful to talk about. All I hear is a bunch of whining about something you could fix if you were not too busy looking for attention.


    June 10, 2021 at 12:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. rv repair shops near me


    June 10, 2021 at 18:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Rosia Gregoria

    I needed to thank you for this good read!! I absolutely enjoyed every bit of it. I have you book marked to look at new stuff you postÖ


    June 10, 2021 at 19:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Myron Lout


    June 10, 2021 at 19:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Maye Boos


    June 10, 2021 at 19:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Carmela Hallas

    Your style is very unique in comparison to other people I've read stuff from. I appreciate you for posting when you've got the opportunity, Guess I'll just book mark this page.


    June 10, 2021 at 19:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. rv repair near me


    June 10, 2021 at 21:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Clair Manco


    June 10, 2021 at 23:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Kanisha Tauarez


    June 11, 2021 at 00:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Felton Capuano

    This website was... how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found something which helped me. Appreciate it!


    June 11, 2021 at 02:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. rv repair near me


    June 11, 2021 at 03:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Kym Willmott

    Hi, I do think this is a great website. I stumbledupon it 😉 I may return once again since I book-marked it. Money and freedom is the best way to change, may you be rich and continue to help others.


    June 11, 2021 at 05:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Genaro Lasota

    I like looking through an article that can make people think. Also, thank you for allowing for me to comment!


    June 11, 2021 at 06:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Sharee Guitierrez

    An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto a friend who had been conducting a little homework on this. And he actually bought me breakfast because I stumbled upon it for him... lol. So allow me to reword this.... Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending time to talk about this matter here on your internet site.

    June 11, 2021 at 06:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Ulrike Oshey


    June 11, 2021 at 07:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. Lilliam Deroos


    June 11, 2021 at 09:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Norris Callari


    June 11, 2021 at 09:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Bulah Dampf

    Hello there! I could have sworn Iíve been to your blog before but after browsing through a few of the articles I realized itís new to me. Anyhow, Iím definitely pleased I came across it and Iíll be book-marking it and checking back often!

    June 11, 2021 at 10:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Claud Mclean


    June 11, 2021 at 10:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. rv repair service near me


    June 11, 2021 at 12:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. store near me

    You need to take part in a contest for one of the best websites on the web. I'm going to highly recommend this blog!


    June 11, 2021 at 13:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. rv service near my location


    June 11, 2021 at 13:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. springs near me

    I couldnít refrain from commenting. Exceptionally well written!


    June 11, 2021 at 16:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. chatsworth collision center


    June 11, 2021 at 16:22 | 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 Clayton Garnica


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.