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.
This site really has all the information I needed concerning this subject and didnít know who to ask.
Everything is very open with a very clear explanation of the challenges. It was really informative. Your website is very useful. Many thanks for sharing!
After exploring a handful of the blog articles on your web site, I truly like your technique of writing a blog. I book marked it to my bookmark website list and will be checking back soon. Please visit my web site too and tell me how you feel.
Hello there! I could have sworn Iíve visited this blog before but after browsing through a few of the posts I realized itís new to me. Nonetheless, Iím certainly delighted I came across it and Iíll be bookmarking it and checking back frequently!
I love it when people come together and share ideas. Great website, keep it up!
Aw, this was an exceptionally good post. Finding the time and actual effort to produce a superb articleÖ but what can I sayÖ I put things off a lot and don't seem to get anything done.
Hello, I believe your site could be having browser compatibility issues. Whenever I take a look at your website in Safari, it looks fine however when opening in IE, it has some overlapping issues. I simply wanted to give you a quick heads up! Aside from that, fantastic website!
I couldnít resist commenting. Very well written!
Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you writing this article and the rest of the site is extremely good.
Great post. I'm going through some of these issues as well..
I love looking through a post that can make people think. Also, thanks for permitting me to comment!
Hi, I do believe this is a great blog. I stumbledupon it 😉 I'm going to return once again since I bookmarked it. Money and freedom is the best way to change, may you be rich and continue to help other people.
Aw, this was a really good post. Taking a few
minutes and actual effort to generate a superb article…
but what can I say… I procrastinate a whole lot and never manage to get anything done.
Great article! We will be linking to this great content on our website. Keep up the good writing.
I seriously love your website.. Pleasant colors & theme. Did you develop this website yourself? Please reply back as Iím trying to create my own personal website and would love to find out where you got this from or what the theme is called. Thanks!
You've made some really good points there. I checked on the internet for more info about the issue and found most individuals will go along with your views on this web site.
I was more than happy to discover this great site. I need to to thank you for ones time for this wonderful read!! I definitely enjoyed every part of it and i also have you book-marked to see new stuff on your site.
I'd like to thank you for the efforts you have put in writing this website. I am hoping to see the same high-grade content from you later on as well. In truth, your creative writing abilities has inspired me to get my very own blog now 😉
Your style is unique compared to other folks I've read stuff from. I appreciate you for posting when you've got the opportunity, Guess I'll just book mark this site.
Good post. I learn something new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon everyday. It's always helpful to read content from other authors and use a little something from other sites.
I would like to thank you for the efforts you have put in writing this site. I'm hoping to check out the same high-grade blog posts by you in the future as well. In truth, your creative writing abilities has inspired me to get my very own website now 😉
I blog quite often and I truly thank you for your content. This great article has really peaked my interest. I will book mark your website and keep checking for new details about once a week. I subscribed to your RSS feed too.
Hi, I think your website could be having browser compatibility problems. When I look at your blog in Safari, it looks fine however, when opening in IE, it has some overlapping issues. I merely wanted to give you a quick heads up! Aside from that, wonderful site!
Iím amazed, I must say. Seldom do I come across a blog thatís equally educative and entertaining, and without a doubt, you've hit the nail on the head. The issue is something too few folks are speaking intelligently about. Now i'm very happy I found this in my search for something regarding this.
Iím impressed, I must say. Seldom do I come across a blog thatís both educative and amusing, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head. The issue is an issue that not enough folks are speaking intelligently about. Now i'm very happy I came across this in my hunt for something concerning this.
This web site truly has all the information I wanted about this subject and didnít know who to ask.
Oh my goodness! Amazing article dude! Thank you so much, However I am going through difficulties with your RSS. I donít know the reason why I cannot subscribe to it. Is there anybody having identical RSS issues? Anyone who knows the solution can you kindly respond? Thanx!!
Hello, I do think your blog could be having web browser compatibility issues. When I look at your blog in Safari, it looks fine however, if opening in I.E., it's got some overlapping issues. I simply wanted to provide you with a quick heads up! Apart from that, excellent blog!