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.
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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.
Best episode was the one where Laura took Nellie and threw her in the mud. Hands down one of my favorite moments from TV growing up as a child.
My favorite episode is when the Olsen's have moved into the city. A storekeeper wants to sell Mrs. Olsen some cream to take care of the "crows feet" around her eyes. Mrs. Olsen tells her that they are not Crows Feet, but Laugh Lines. The storekeeper tells her that nothing is that funny! I love that one!!!
Geez, I still remember that, too. One of my favorite lines as well.
i think i remember that too. seemed out of character for her, but ...
Yeah well Mary still turned out fine, married a nice guy had a baby. Oh but that baby died in a fire and Mary was again stricken with grief. Poor lovely Mary. They don't make good TV like that anymore.
This is about the real life Mary. She did not marry or have a baby.
@Sheri-What is it with you trying to correct everyone who are simply joking around about the characters? Here you go: YES, SHERI, WE ALL KNOW THE ARTICLE IS ABOUT THE REAL MARY. Are you happy now?!
Proofreading please? It's "poured", not pored. 😉
You are wrong. "Pored" is correct. At leastcheck with a dictionary before you spew your ignorance in public.
1 [pawr, pohr] Show IPA
verb (used without object), pored, por·ing.
to read or study with steady attention or application: a scholar poring over a rare old manuscript.
No, "pore" is the correct word here.
wow, swing and a miss!
What part of Elle's definition are you all missing? You all got majorly p'wned.
I figured out a long time ago that it's worth spending a few seconds with Google before correcting someone on the web. 😉
Let me guess, Jimmy Joe Jim Bob...you're a non-denominational imbecile...where does the "Christian" part come from??
Christina: Proofreading indeed. Use of a question mark is incorrect.
Not a word I use a lot, but I'll bet I've used it wrong. 'Poured' somehow sounds correct-er. ;>
It's good to point these things out, but of little use to get worked up about them. We ALL misuse/spell something wrong. Or say a phrase wrong. In my 60's, I find so many words I've been misspelling, that I didn't even realize. Yay, spellcheck!!!
And the next time I use 'pored over', I'll have forgotten this little lesson and will probably spell it wrong.
10 years research.... wow!! sad
The article didn't say it was all they did for 10 years. They do stuff like this on the side in their spare time.
You are the stupid one. This is fascinating research done without pay on an important work of literature and a historically valuable book. Researchers often go back and find out the truth behind literary characters, but somebody like you would not ever go one step out of your way for knowledge. You are what is known as a low achiever.
"historically valuable". Ok, I'll bite. The cause of blindness was CLEARLY wrong and is a significant bit in the book. Are you willing to now bet that the rest of it is accurate? Really? On what basis? As a historic record, it's now rubbish. A mix of fiction and non-fiction. It needs to be relegated to the fiction section of the library shelves.
That's usually where historical fiction is found.
please research the term historical fiction. Moron.
Just because they lacked knowledge about some things, it doesn't invalidate the rest of the book. Ignorance isn't quite the same as "making stuff up". If you think you see a red ball, and it's actually a blue one, that doesn't make your perception invalid.
I just have to know. What the eff does this have to do with anything going on in the world today? I mean, this is really a stupid thing to be featured on a headline. There are more serious things going on in the world. Sure it was a great show. It's loved by generations still. But this is something that's just not acceptable to take the place of things that really matter. It's not fair to hide the real things that are important and happening now from the public over a very silly research.
You're over-reacting. This story isn't stopping anything important from happenning. Most people won't even read it. Stay calm.
i bet you spent more time writing your silly little diatribe than i did reading the article...it's the internet – there's no shortage of space. if a link doesn't sound interesting, don't click on it.
How hard is that?
It seems that you are O.K. with people believing that Scarlet Fever makes you blind when there is no basis in fact to support that. By trying to determine what the true cause was, they were able to put some fears to rest for those who get Scarlet Fever. The more we know about health risks the better we are able to respond to events in our lives.
Beeeeecaaaauuuuse, they have now debunked an old wives tale and have left the human race juuuuuuust a little bit more enlightened and knowledgeable about this big 'ol scary disease ridden world. So, next time a helicopter parent comes spinning in out of control with a child exhibiting Scarlet Fever symptoms they can rest a little easier knowing that little Johnny isn't going to go blind after all. Isn't that worth having one less stressed out soccer mom in the world?
The story is a fishing expedition. An attempt by TV execs to gauge the popularity of LHotP to see if they can respin it for cash.
I had such a crush on Melissa Sue Anderson back in the day......and looking at her photo on her book, she still looks great.
A lot of really important scientists are posting here. I can only imagine the disease you geniuses are curing with your time.
They should cure our nation's most widespread affliction – apathy.
Think about all the mouths you could feed if you were working and donating the money to charity instead of posting on CNN!
There is no cure for stupidity.
There must be another Democrat scandal to cover up.(Menendez) Why else would CNN grace US with a Mary Ingalls blindness study.
Perhaps because there are other things in the world to cover than politics and not everything interests everyone. I think this is really interesting. If you don't want to read an article, then just skip it.
You NAILED IT! How long before the lefty kool-aid drinkers figure it out???? Never!
If somebody were to publish a nice Valentine's Day article about kittens and rose petals and rainbows, some bitter right-winger would find a way to turn it into a slam against Obama and the Democrats. Give it a rest, guys, you're not making friends.
MJ you are a dick! Really hope nothing makes you go blind (snicker-snicker).
Amen to that Richard!
The American pioneers and settlers who were pushing West went through amazing hardships to make a new life for themselves during the early 19th century.
Dealing with disease when medicine was still primitive was yet another issue they had to deal with.
They have my respect!
Conspiracy Alert! Another shocking bit of bashing from the far right. You guys are pretty consistent when it comes to staying away from reality...
Good to know. Still, I had such a massive crush on Melissa Sue Anderson.
Jesus Christ. File under, "GET A LIFE!"
Years ago, a friend with seizures was prescribed Dilantin. At the doctor's office, I wanted to know, "Does it make your gums rot?" The doctor was surprised, and said yes, how did I know? I read it in Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Mr. Kesey did work in a mental hospital, however, and I guess he must have learned it there.
Hope your "friend" is ok. I always bring my friends to the doctor with me. haha!
Mary could have come up with practices to offset the disease.
Is it just me, or has CNN basically turned into a middle-school newspaper?
For someone who doesn't like this article, you seem to be the one with the most time on your hands to post comments.
A wide range of stories for people with a wide range of interests.
Not including you, evidently.
It may have turned into a middle school newspaper, but the sad truth is that CNN is simply catering its information to its largest demographic. The media isn't changing America. America has insisted the media report what it does. After all, it all boils down to revenue. We have no one to blame for this other than ourselves.
On that note, I find it pretty interesting that someone questioned this urban legend. Too many folks, with good intentions, simply accept what they read or hear as the truth. Here, we have a simply for noteworthy tale of a person questioning information about an extremely popular American book series and television show, and following it to its logical conclusion.
I say bravo.
The only disappointing information associated with this article is the childish remarks from many readers.
The sooner you realize the world does not revolve around you, the better. Did CNN send you an urgent news alert to your shoe phone about this story? No, they didn't, so get over yourself already.
The real DANGEROUS illness for teens and college age kids is Bacterial Meningitis which can spread quickly in dormitories and other close living quarters and can be quite lethal to young people. Patients often end up in isolation units in ICU and can suffer permanent, debilitating side effects including nerve damage.
The real tragic part is that it's preventable with a vaccine. I'll admit the vaccine is a bit on the expensive side, but considering it's just a little north of $100 I'd say it's worth the investment to be better safe than sorry.
Even more sad is thinking any disease is preventable by a vaccine...
No. I would have been blind by age 14 if that were true.
I like corn.
Hard pore corn?
Don't you mean "hard pour corn"?
My mother went blind in her left eye from having scarlett fever as a kid... she wore glasses alll of her life... she was out of school for a whole year because she was so sick... i think it probably was true.... my mom also lived on a farm.. . family wasnt rich or anything and did what they could to get by....
The article debunks that your mother had scarlet fever. She had viral meningoencephalitis. She's fortunate that it was only in one eye.
My Grandmother had Scarlett fever as a young girl and she lost her sight in one eye as well.
I thought she went blind from a fire. How did I get that? I was around seven or eight when she went blind and I was convinced I was going to go blind too. I slept with the light on for years. Totally traumatized me.
You do realize that this article is about the real life Ingalls family, and the incident you refer to is from a fictionalized TV show?
don't you believe everything you watch?
There was a Mary Ingalls who went blind when living in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. She then went to the School for the Blind in Vinton, Iowa and resided the rest of her life in DeSmet, South Dakota. She died in 1928 when visiting her sister Carrie.
For the ungrateful people here who think this was a waste of time / money / opportunity to cure cancer: A) why did you bother to read it. B) I'm sure this was not the only thing this group of ambitious people were working on. Sometimes in addition to all the serious work its fun to have side projects. C) Science doesn't occur in cancer curing leaps and bounds. Science is in fact indifferent. It is about the details, the nuances, and getting things right. Eventually all those things come together and we stand on the shoulders of giants. Now you can go back to criticizing ambitious scholarly people in between your Doritos break and commercials.
dr. beth tarini needs a life. Take that little house passion and cure an illness or something
My god, libs think TV is real!
when did this become about politics pen-de-jo?
Actually this is not just about TV but real life. Get a grip she did go blind.
@Sherri-Do you realize she is joking around?!!
To find out why research like this is important, look no further than the actor who portrayed Pa Ingalls. Michael Landon COULD have spent his final months in the company of friends and family. Instead he spent it frantically ramming around the world in search of some kind of miracle cure for his cancer and had to associate with the worst kinds of charlatans and quacks. Sometimes the best service that science can provide is to point out what DOESN'T work.
i think strep causes MUCH more havoc than they give it credit for, even today. messes up your blood sugar.
Laura Ingalls Wilder is a cousin of my family on my father's side. I had read the books as a child but got really interested in the family when the truth showed up in my genealogy. Mary never did marry and lived with the younger sister Carrie until her death. There weren't any "adopted children" in the family either as is depicted in the T.V. shows. I was interested in this article because my own mother was said to have had scarlet fever as a child resulting in heart problems and breathing problems as she aged.....however.....she also had CMT Muscular Dystrophy which is inherited from her father's side of the family so who knows what the entire truth is there either... without someone researching it out with today's knowledge. I personally am glad someone picked up this task of researching Mary's illness and the truth.
It's not a waste of time and money of you're a pediatrician who's sick of Helicopter Moms coming in, freaking out because their kid has Scarlet Fever, thinking the kid is going to go blind due to some #(%@ing hack writer who can't be bothered to at least cite a legitimate cause for the blindness. Or because they believe a non-medical book should actually be taken as rote medical information. There are FAR too many acutely stupid people on this planet, so research like this is necessary to combat that stupidity.
I heard it was a failed lasik surgery attempt by Doc Baker.
The picture above which accompanies the article seems unusually "modern". In Little House on the Prairie, I do not ever remember seeing presents/gifts wrapped in such fancy, glossy, colorful paper with ribbons and bows. In Walnut Grove, they were usually wrapped in plain brown paper from the Oleson"s Mercantile. So has the picture been "photoshopped"?
Why do we need to distort the simplicity of the period?
You're a special kind of paranoid, huh?
Isuspect that the presents pictured were from a Christmas. or other celebration, on set. Not a part of the production.
My wife is a big fan of the books and show. Years back we had friends who went to the house where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived, they saw pictures etc, and the book is not really at all like the story other then the mother, father, children's names. I already knew she didn't go blind from scarlet fever it was just easier for the show, also it was even more primative then the show, the father had a long beard, hardly smoked, Michael Landon was a chain smoker you know, and there are some other things. That's why it's based on the books, not a complete retell.
They also attribute her blindness to scarlet fever in the books, too, though.
Mary never got married in real life. She died after several strokes few months after her mother. What caused her blindness was high fever. What really caused the fever we will never know , but it says in the books that they even cut her beautiful hair to lower her fever. There was no tylenol in those days and was common for people to die, go blind or deaf after a high fever. The last thing she saw was the beautiful eyes of her sister Grace. Laura became her eyes and because of that she learned to narrate and we have the little house books as legacy. Mary went to college for the blind and learned many things . She was always considered the smartest of the family.
Are you mentally challenged? You obviously just didn't bother to read the article?? Now, they DO know what it was. It right there ^ in the article you apparently didn't read, but just scrolled past in order to comment.
My son got scarlett fever a few years ago and I was totally freaked out that he would go blind!!!.....becaus that is what happened to Mary Ingalls.........perhaps I should sue for mental anquish lol
Odd to think of Frankenstein and By the Shores of Silver Lake as "from the same period." Frankenstein was published in 1818, By the Shores of Silver Lake in 1939. The book was set around 1868, but that's still well after Frankenstein.
All I remember, is Little house on the prairie sucked. it was 4th grade mandatory reading assignment , i was a 10 year old boy, the last thing i wanted to do was read about a family of girls from 1800s...if that summary is wrong, i dont care, it was so boring I dont even want to know.
From the article: <>
Uh, lolwut, Ms. Bixler? "Frankenstein" was published in 1818, "Little Women" in 1868 and "On the Shores of Silver Lake" in 1939.
Way to go Shatner.......I needed a good laugh........
The Laura Ingalls books are a treasure. It shows a part of our history and are read everywhere in the world. It should be mandatory read in elementary school. Laura's 65 year old memory was fabulous but when in doubt she would ask her sisters. Her role model was her dad and if you read little house on the big woods you will see. He was a great man.Her mom was an ex school teacher wich accounts for the high education her daughters received in spite of the hardships. The boy died before two,so dad encouraged the girls to be independent and strong as any boy.
There were still bigger risks back then. Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing as a result of scarlet fever when she was a baby – or at least that's how the story goes.
I actually thought the same thing when I read this article. "But...but...what about Helen Keller?" I looked up the Wikipedia article on Helen Keller, and according to that article, the fever she had was described by doctors at the time as "an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain". A little more googling led me to the conclusion that the doctors of Keller's time weren't positive of exactly what she had and could only describe the symptoms, and that the diagnosis of her blindness possibly being caused by scarlet fever actually came later. What is notable is that the only symptoms they describe seem incompatible with scarlet fever. No mention of a rash, either, and no mention of a sore or red throat (scarlet fever is what happens if you don't treat a strep throat infection with antibiotics). The only symptoms that they mention were stomach upset and a "congestion of the brain." While strep infections can certainly cause stomach upset and occasionally brain swelling, so does meningitis. Either way, it's inconclusive, but Helen Keller could have had meningitis as well.
If I lived out in the middle of nowhere in Minnesota in the 1800's, bored out of mind with nothing else to do, I would probably end doing things my Mother warned me about that would make me go blind too.
Shatner...you were a late bloomer.
so i was watching Sponge Bob and it dawned on me that Sea Sponges can talk. So I set out to do this research, took diving lessons, rented a vessel and coordinated several dives with some local divers to perform this study on how sea sponges communicate and language they speak...............................REALLY people. it's a feaking TV show.
So they spend 10 years researching whether a teen age girl's blindness back in the 1800's was caused by scarlet fever or not. Really? 10 years?
That is so true. Back then people sometimes died of the common cold. It is crazy to waste the time and money on this research.
interesting, but scarlet fever can cause meningitis, which can then cause the vision to deteriorate over time. so it still really could have been originated from scarlet fever.
Apparently in the old days a lot physical side effects of an illness were attributed to scarlet fever. I had an uncle who was totally, Bruce Willis style, bald. The family story was that he went bald after contracting scarlet fever. Browsing the web I find that hair loss can occur in concert with a high fever, but it is temporary. Love those family stories.
I debunk this article in its entirety! I was from a family of 12 and 8 of us got Scarlet Fever. I was left with crossed eyes and wore glasses most of my youth. My eyes eventually uncrossed and I have been fine ever since. So I know first hand that Scarlet Fever can cause eye problems.
She blamed it on Scarlet Fever because nobody knew what viral meningoencephalitis was back then.
I loved that show and the books. The books were directed towards children and scarlet fever was probably easier to pronounce than the disease that really affected Mary. Children are not going to question the validity of an illness and the things that are a result of a particular illness. The books and shows were based on her life so not every aspect of them is true. Some parts are made up to make the story more interesting. I think it is also true that Mary never married so Adam Kendall is also made up just like the scarlet fever.
It was my favorite show as a kid, glad to know.
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