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In Wilder's unpublished memoir, "Pioneer Girl," there is no reference to Mary having scarlet fever the year she went blind.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. RV Air Conditioner Repair Near Me


    June 24, 2021 at 12:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Camper Repair Shops Near Me

    May I just say what a relief to find somebody that actually knows what they are talking about online. You certainly realize how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More and more people have to check this out and understand this side of your story. I can't believe you are not more popular since you certainly possess the gift.


    June 24, 2021 at 16:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. RV Repair Shops Near Me


    June 24, 2021 at 17:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. truck shop orange


    June 24, 2021 at 19:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. like youtube

    Thanks for finally writing about > The real reason Mary Ingalls went blind – The Chart – CNN.com Blogs < Loved it!

    June 24, 2021 at 19:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. RV Repair Shop Near My Location

    I like it whenever people get together and share views. Great website, stick with it!


    June 24, 2021 at 19:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. RV Repair Orange County


    June 24, 2021 at 20:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Sprinter Repair Near Me

    After I initially left a comment I appear to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on every time a comment is added I recieve 4 emails with the exact same comment. Perhaps there is a means you can remove me from that service? Many thanks!


    June 24, 2021 at 21:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Nearby RV Repairs


    June 25, 2021 at 00:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. RV Repair Places Near Me

    Very good article. I will be going through a few of these issues as well..


    June 25, 2021 at 01:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. RV Repair Services Near Me


    June 25, 2021 at 02:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. rv appliance repair near me


    June 25, 2021 at 02:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Sprinter Repair Orange County

    This website definitely has all the information I wanted about this subject and didnít know who to ask.


    June 25, 2021 at 03:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. RV Repair Near My Location


    June 25, 2021 at 04:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Sprinter Repair Orange County

    You're so cool! I do not suppose I have read a single thing like this before. So good to find another person with some original thoughts on this subject matter. Seriously.. thank you for starting this up. This site is one thing that's needed on the internet, someone with some originality!


    June 25, 2021 at 06:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. RV Electrical Repair Near Me

    Good day! I could have sworn Iíve visited this site before but after going through some of the posts I realized itís new to me. Nonetheless, Iím certainly pleased I came across it and Iíll be bookmarking it and checking back frequently!


    June 25, 2021 at 06:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. dashboard repair near me


    June 25, 2021 at 06:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. RV Repair Shop


    June 25, 2021 at 08:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. RV Repair Santa Ana

    I was very pleased to uncover this site. I want to to thank you for ones time due to this wonderful read!! I definitely really liked every bit of it and I have you saved as a favorite to see new stuff in your web site.


    June 25, 2021 at 08:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Emergency RV Repair Near Me


    June 25, 2021 at 10:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Camper Repair Shop Near Me


    June 25, 2021 at 11:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. www.pharmaceptica.com

    c-tadalafil https://www.pharmaceptica.com/

    June 25, 2021 at 11:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. RV Repair Shop


    June 25, 2021 at 12:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. RV Repairs Nearby


    June 25, 2021 at 13:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Beverly Waszmer

    Great website. Thank you for the information best online spanish language lessons


    June 25, 2021 at 13:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. RV Repairs Near Me

    I need to to thank you for this very good read!! I absolutely loved every bit of it. I have you book marked to check out new stuff you postÖ


    June 25, 2021 at 15:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. RV Collision Repair Near Me


    June 25, 2021 at 16:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. RV Roof Repair Near Me


    June 25, 2021 at 16:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Camper Repair Shop Near Me

    I really like it whenever people get together and share opinions. Great website, continue the good work!


    June 25, 2021 at 17:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. RV Fridge Repair Near Me

    I'm more than happy to discover this web site. I want to to thank you for ones time for this particularly wonderful read!! I definitely liked every bit of it and I have you book-marked to look at new information on your site.


    June 25, 2021 at 17:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. RV Suspension Repair Near Me


    June 25, 2021 at 20:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. RV Repair Near Me Now


    June 25, 2021 at 20:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. RV Awning Repair Near Me

    Aw, this was an extremely good post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to produce a superb articleÖ but what can I sayÖ I procrastinate a lot and don't manage to get anything done.


    June 25, 2021 at 20:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. RV Repair Huntington Beach


    June 25, 2021 at 21:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Nearby RV Repair


    June 25, 2021 at 22:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. RV Roof Repair Service Near Me

    I needed to thank you for this excellent read!! I definitely enjoyed every bit of it. I have you saved as a favorite to check out new stuff you postÖ


    June 25, 2021 at 23:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Emergency RV Repair Near Me


    June 26, 2021 at 00:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. RV Brake Repair Near Me


    June 26, 2021 at 00:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. RV Repair Fountain Valley


    June 26, 2021 at 00:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. RV Repair Orange County


    June 26, 2021 at 00:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. RV Repair Near Here

    There is definately a great deal to find out about this issue. I really like all the points you have made.


    June 26, 2021 at 04:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. Camper Repair Shop Near Me


    June 26, 2021 at 04:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. RV Repair Shops Near Me

    I was able to find good information from your blog posts.


    June 26, 2021 at 05:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. RV Repair Near My Location


    June 26, 2021 at 06:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. RV Repair Shops Near My Location

    I blog frequently and I truly thank you for your information. This article has really peaked my interest. I am going to bookmark your site and keep checking for new details about once a week. I subscribed to your Feed too.


    June 26, 2021 at 06:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. RV Repair Near Me

    Great site you have got here.. Itís hard to find good quality writing like yours these days. I honestly appreciate individuals like you! Take care!!


    June 26, 2021 at 06:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. pharmaceptica

    lupus wikipedia english https://pharmaceptica.com/

    June 26, 2021 at 07:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. RV Repair Huntington Beach

    Hi! I could have sworn Iíve visited this website before but after looking at some of the articles I realized itís new to me. Anyhow, Iím certainly delighted I discovered it and Iíll be bookmarking it and checking back regularly!


    June 26, 2021 at 07:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. RV Repair And Service Near Me

    You need to take part in a contest for one of the greatest blogs on the web. I most certainly will recommend this site!


    June 26, 2021 at 08:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. Booker Burks


    June 26, 2021 at 11:10 | 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 Maserati Lease Specials


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.