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In Wilder's unpublished memoir, "Pioneer Girl," there is no reference to Mary having scarlet fever the year she went blind.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

    Has anyone mentioned here that it's now widely believed that Laura's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane is more likely the actual "author" of the Little House books? Though based on Laura's memoirs, the published books were much more like Rose's style than Laura's dull, dry writing. If I'm not mistaken, Laura memoirs garnered little attention until they were made more readable (interesting?) by her daughter Rose. And at that time, Laura was in her 60s and Rose had already had some of her writing published. The books are found in the fiction section, after all................

    February 5, 2013 at 13:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • claudiat

      Rose was a famous writer at the time and encouraged her mother to write her memories, wich she did first time at 65.It was meant as a homage to her father. Before that , she wrote many years at the local farmers newspaper, were you can see some of Lauras adventures plus much more. You can find them. Their style was much diferent and some stuff was changed to suit children. The last book was never meant to be published(Laura and Almanzos first years of marriage) and was published unpolished. There you can see how well she wrote.

      February 5, 2013 at 13:48 | Report abuse |
    • Lynne

      Yes, I've heard that Rose was likely the true author of the Little House books. In "Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder" by Donald Zochert, it is mentioned that Laura only meant to write one book, "Pioneer Girl," which she intended to be a memorial to her father. According to Laura, "hundreds of children" wrote to her begging for a sequel, so the series was born. I don't know how much money the books brought in, but it was certainly more than the Wilders earned by farming. Rose and Laura apparently didn't get along well later in life. If Rose actually wrote the books but Laura got all the fame and money, I can see why.

      August 2, 2013 at 08:38 | Report abuse |
    • Mary

      I've read that, and I think it's nonsense. Rose's pioneer fiction attempts were boring and blah with zero charm to them. They were basically non-endearing rip-offs of Laura's life stories. I think someone wanted to unearth a scandal that simply doesn't exist.

      May 17, 2015 at 01:20 | Report abuse |
  2. HouseMD

    I watch too much House. I was thinking to myself, sounds more like meningitis. Though it could be lupus.

    February 5, 2013 at 14:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Lynne

      I vote for meningitis. One of Mark Twain's daughters died from that disease and she went blind shortly before her death.

      August 2, 2013 at 08:39 | Report abuse |
  3. SteelSunflowr

    I figured the article would say it was diabetes since several members of the family were diabetic.

    February 5, 2013 at 14:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • SteelSunflowr

      Or if you can trust wiki, she had measles and not Scarlet Fever which "precipitated a stroke resulting in lifelong blindness."

      February 5, 2013 at 14:24 | Report abuse |
  4. B33tle

    "Scarlet fever" is a lot easier to spell than "viral meningoencephalitis".

    February 5, 2013 at 14:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. kibs

    The TV show is only loosely based on the books. I remember reading in one of the LH books that half of Mary's face drooped. I always figured it was a stroke, perhaps brought on by the scralet fever.

    February 5, 2013 at 14:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Raine

    I really believed & truly enjoyed this series as a youngster...however after some research as a high school project, 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 who died in an accidentally set fire. 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 may have been partly based on a strue family living at that time but apparently there was no horribly evil "Nellie". All these stories lines were just that...story lines to keep the series going & going.
    As a kids who might have "wished" to be part of this "wonderful" supportive family only parts of it are true. Like the Waltons, there really was no Waltons Mountain & the real Hamner family had 8 children not 7 whose names were entirely different than those given to the Walton's story line.
    Interestingly enough for some of us who grew up with our "fantasy family".....the truth was a wake up call...lol!

    February 5, 2013 at 14:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • claudiat

      Grace was real.

      February 5, 2013 at 16:58 | Report abuse |
    • Lynne

      Yes, there was a baby Grace. Grace Pearl Ingalls was the youngest child of Caroline and Charles.

      August 2, 2013 at 08:40 | Report abuse |
    • Kristi

      Grace was real; Mary lived with her too, not just Carrie.

      April 11, 2015 at 20:07 | Report abuse |
    • Mary

      There was no Grace, huh? Might be time to give up on the TV show and read the books. Why, I've even seen old photographs of the real Grace Ingalls, who did indeed exist and even married.

      May 17, 2015 at 01:22 | Report abuse |
  7. heloise8

    Reblogged this on The Trough.

    February 5, 2013 at 14:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. chad

    We had a Korean kid in our class that had a blind dog, he told me he was blind in one eye and couldn't see out of the other. I said well wouldn't that be blind in both then, and he shook his head??

    February 5, 2013 at 14:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Jeff

    I find this story incredibly interesting. I read the Little House books and many other books dedicated to Laura's life. I have read elsewhere that it was not scarlet fever as well. My question/complaint about the article though is...why didn't you place a photo of the real Mary Ingalls on here instead of the fictionalize Mary from TV? I love the TV show, but put the real woman up. If you want people to know the "real story" why don't you place the "real woman" in the photo? Otherwise, great story!

    February 5, 2013 at 14:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Mel

    I always wonder why Charles 's Ingalls newborn son died. All that was said was that he was not gaining weight and there was nothing that Dr. Baker could do about it. He was born,lived and died in 1 episode. Yes, I know I am a lonely person with no life blah blah blah you all can make fun of my "lLittle House On The Pair" obsessive if you want too. I really don't care.

    February 5, 2013 at 15:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jeff

      In real life, the boy died as the family was moving from Walnut Grove to Burr Oak, Iowa. They were at a cousin's home when he "straightened out and died." It is said Ma would remark now and then as they grew older that, "It would have been different if Freddie had lived."

      February 5, 2013 at 15:58 | Report abuse |
    • Sami J

      Thank you! I have searched a while to find someone else who was thinking the same as me; but not only Charles and Caroline, but also, Laura and Rose both gave birth to boys and they too, died shortly after. Is there some sort of bad gene that got passed down, that caused this?

      August 1, 2013 at 20:20 | Report abuse |
  11. Praetorian

    And here I was always unde the impression tha it was because of too much fantasizing about Mr. Edwards...'You'll go blind from that!'

    February 5, 2013 at 15:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. The Bodacious

    I know how it really happened.

    February 5, 2013 at 15:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. catwho

    AGeek – It already is on the fiction section of the shelves. All of her books are generally classified as young adult literature, not historical narrative.

    February 5, 2013 at 15:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Karen

    Scarlett Fever doesn't cause blindness??? Ever hear of Helen Keller???

    February 5, 2013 at 15:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • I call BS

      Just a quick Google search shows that scarlet fever was never conclusively found to have caused Keller's deafness and blindness. There were several sources that cited the possible cause as meningitis.

      February 5, 2013 at 21:37 | Report abuse |
  15. jgk

    It has been long established that the Little House books were fiction based on Laura's story. For instance, the events of Little House on the Prairie took place BEFORE the events of Little House in the Big Woods; there was son who died as a baby, etc.

    The fact that these are well-written and generally provide a solid history in a manner understood by children is the important part.

    February 5, 2013 at 16:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. TW

    Did the author of this piece really write, "Scarlet fever is mentioned in other books from the period, including 'Little Women' and 'Frankenstein'?" How are "Little House on the Prairie" (1935), "Little Women" (1868) and "Frankenstein" (1818) even remotely the same period?

    February 5, 2013 at 17:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • KT

      TW if you paid attention the stories were written and published years after the time frame occurred. If you researched the Laura Ingalls Wilder biography she was talking about when she was a child which was the late 1800's and medical research was so new at that time that what the Dr called Scarlet fever may have been Meningitis.. They also had something call Consumption which is now called TB or Tuberculosis..Its not like they went to the corner pharmacy and got a pill for that

      February 6, 2013 at 01:15 | Report abuse |
    • moviesimissed

      And if KT paid attention, KT would see the article refers to "books from the period" not "books ABOUT the period." When the books were set is irrelevant (though I guess then, in KT's world, Frankenstein is set fifty years in the future? Someone better tell Mary Shelley). Under KT's logic, Gone WIth the Wind and Django Unchained are movies from the same period. David O Selznick is probably really mad about that fine he had to pay for the single use of the word "Damn," then.

      Also, mentions of scarlet fever go back as far as the 1500s (and likely much earlier, though it wasn't recognized as a specific condition before then) and meningitis is identified in the very early 1800s. The use of scarlet fever in "OTSOSL" was very likely a dramatic choice on the part of Wilder. Not to mention, in the book the entire family is described as having had scarlet fever at the same time (except for Laura and Pa), which also contradicts her account of Mary having had it as a young child.

      February 6, 2013 at 10:40 | Report abuse |
  17. Deb

    The television series was based on the books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Yes, there was really a Laura, Mary and Carrie Ingalls. (And Mary really did go blind.) I loved the books and the illustrations but was not as fond of the TV series. Last summer while travelling through Iowa, I happened across the Wilder Museum. It had many photographs of the Wilder family (Laura's husband). Included were photos of Laura and her family too. Fascinating. She was very much a real person with a real American story. We would not have it but for the encouragement of Laura's daughter Rose who as an adult was a reporter and encouraged her mother to write down the stories she (Rose) had grown up listening to.

    February 5, 2013 at 18:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Greg

      I never knew the show was based on a books that were based on real-life events.

      February 6, 2013 at 21:14 | Report abuse |
  18. ondeck

    It is entirely possible and even probable that she had scarlet fever that developed into rheumatic fever(w/out antibiotics) and one of the complications of that is uveitis which left untreated would cause her to go blind and would also explain why her eyesight worsened gradually over a long period of time to eventual blindness. Rather than meningitis with intracranial swelling pressing on the optic nerve. These still occur TODAY although not so often due to antibiotics but some strains are resistant to antibiotics and these conditions still can happen and do. Do not dismiss strep infections.

    February 5, 2013 at 18:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Carla

      That is a very intelligent comment. I think you may be on to something.

      March 10, 2013 at 12:14 | Report abuse |
    • Melanie

      The register at the blind school in Vinton, Iowa which Mary Ingalls attended lists the cause of Mary's blindness as "brain fever" which Laura likely misremembered as Scarlet Fever.

      January 26, 2016 at 22:51 | Report abuse |
  19. DaveB

    The real reason Mary Ingalls went blind?

    "WKRP in Cincinnati" was gaining on "Little House on the Prairie" in the Nielsen ratings.

    February 5, 2013 at 22:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Larry Peebles

      My thoughts exactly.

      February 6, 2013 at 21:40 | Report abuse |
  20. CAROL

    My mother had scarlet fever when she was a child She was born in 1926 and lived to be 84 and was not BLINDED in any way.. she had cataracts later in life but had wonderful eyesight before that.

    February 5, 2013 at 22:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Lisa

    There were many story lines that happened in the show that were not in her books. They had to make it good for TV! Don't believe everything you saw on TV.

    February 5, 2013 at 22:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. KG

    Not that this is of any importance, but in the tv series, Pa stated that Mary had scarlett fever AS A YOUNG CHILD (Clearly meaning at a much younger age). It was never stated that she had it in the year prior to going blind. If we are going to dog the inaccuracies of an already fictional tale, let's at least get our references correct.

    February 5, 2013 at 22:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Patti

    My 102 year old grandma and her family have been quite interesting with their "reasons" why her brother was in a wheel chair. I have heard everything from he hurt his back lifting a piano while aboard a military vessel to it must have been when he had spinal meningitis as a young boy. Back then the medical science wasn't what it is today and people did a lot of guessing by what they saw and heard. People were hush hush about anything wrong in the family because it would tarnish the families name. They would lock away an alzhiemer grandmother etc. I got Scarlet Fever when I was very small and my grandparents had been around me. They freaked out really bad because in their day there wasn't a cure and people died from it or in their minds it caused all kinds of awful things. I have tachycardia which my mom blames on the Scarlet Fever. I also have unexplained facial droop that happens on the right side of my face for a few hours about every 4 years. I had Scarlet Fever a 2nd time as an adult. I like reading the article about Mary's blindness. Thanks

    February 5, 2013 at 23:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. RayJacksonMS

    So basically we now know Laura Ingalls was a liar out to make a quick buck. That was well worth 10 years of scientific research.

    February 6, 2013 at 00:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Cheryll

      By your definition, ALL writers would be called liars and out to make a buck. And when you go to work, aren't you out to make a buck? You are very judgmental and I hope to never meet you.

      February 7, 2013 at 12:08 | Report abuse |
    • Mary

      Or we could say that medical diagnoses were not exact in the 1870s. Or we could say that an older woman writing her story for little children would use a familiar term instead of confusing kids who were learning to read. Or we could say that the family never really knew exactly what happened.

      May 17, 2015 at 01:26 | Report abuse |
  25. marie

    ok, now that you figured that out how about researching why all males seemed to die in the bloodline. was there a genetic disorder being passed along. 3 generations of males died; there had to be some sort of disorder involved.

    February 6, 2013 at 00:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rachel

      Actually, someone did find an explanation for that – the theory is that it may have been something that's called "hemolytic disease of the newborn", in which the antibodies in the mother's blood cross over to her fetus' blood, which causes problems with fetal development of blood. This is also associated with McLeod Syndrome, which is carried on the X chromosome so it primarily affects baby boys and would be passed down the maternal line.

      Another historical example of a disease that's similar, and likely caused by the same genes, is King Henry VII and the difficulty he had producing a male heir.

      February 7, 2013 at 02:35 | Report abuse |
  26. grobbeist

    All that time on the prairie and nothing to do...you know why she really went blind

    February 6, 2013 at 05:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. twhaley

    I had a feeling that Doc Baker was a quack!

    February 6, 2013 at 08:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Linsteadslacker

    Finally... I can sleep at night.

    February 6, 2013 at 08:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Judy

    I was always told that my father's mother died of scarlet fever after giving birth to a baby girl in hospital. The baby died as well. Now I wonder .....

    February 6, 2013 at 08:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. adarc

    How is Scarlet fever "not dangerous" – even if treated it can lead to heart problems and arthritis down the line.
    Not to mention the fact that untreated, it can kill you.

    February 6, 2013 at 09:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Steve D

    Blindness may be the result of brain inflammation as a complication of scarlet fever, but that doesn't make it a routine effect. I had scarlet fever 50 years ago and my eyes work fine. Nor do I recall my folks being overly concerned about it.

    February 6, 2013 at 11:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rebeccah

      Scarlet Fever is actually a complication or allergic reaction to the strep throat virus, not a result of not being treated. I had scarlet fever around 2003 and I was on antibiotics for strep throat. The progression of the sickness goes strep throat, scarlet fever, and then rheumatic fever.

      July 18, 2013 at 12:37 | Report abuse |
  32. Antronman

    Hah. I don't even get why you guys are all arguing so heavily about this. Mary Ingalls has been dead for quite some time. Or didn't you get the memo?
    It seems that all of this work is for the sake of arguement.

    February 6, 2013 at 12:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. DP530

    A lot of my family has come down with scarlet fever for short periods of time, and while it's painful, it at least isn't as menacing anymore as it must have been for the pioneers. Even hereditary blindness is beginning to meet its match in medical science(http://empiricalmag.blogspot.com/2013/02/our-pacific-northwest-uw-aims-to.html).

    February 6, 2013 at 14:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. crazy

    You are all crazy and I'jm crazy for reading the comments. It is alway interesting to study learn and ponder about history so we become better people

    February 6, 2013 at 14:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. dmodlin71

    Mary didn't go blind. She went "mline."

    February 8, 2013 at 00:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Quark

    I used to love that show, although Nelly always scacred me to death!

    February 8, 2013 at 10:57 | Report abuse | Reply
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  38. dumbo

    Didn't they check her palms? Didn't ya know you could go blind from masturbation?! Seriously!

    February 14, 2013 at 23:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. bookgal

    In the book by LIW "On the Shores of the Silver Lake" there is reference to Mary having Scalett Fever and went blind- Pa had shrone Mary's hair short and Laura was to be her eyes. Jack the Brindle Bulldog died and they moved to the Dakota Territory. I wonder if these were additons by Laura Ingalls Wilder or her publisher. As a kid I don't think I would like to read about brain fever or a spinal sickness, Scarlett Fever sounds so much more romantic.

    February 18, 2013 at 15:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Peanut M&M

    The book A Little House Sampler, edited by William Anderson, specifically states that Mary had spinal meningitis (I thought it said meningitis, but maybe it said viral meningoencephalitis–I read it years ago), which caused her to go blind. Certain events in the Ingalls familiy's life, including the death of their brother, were omitted or changed to make the books more family-friendly. And the show is only loosely based on the books. I recommend A Little House Sampler if you want to read additional stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. It also clarifies a lot of details from the books. If Dr. Tarini had read this book, it would have answered her question.

    February 19, 2013 at 14:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. CTorres

    When I read the article and read about the "drooping face" I figured she had a mild form of Bell's Palsy from a Stroke. However,
    The doctor never told me I could go blind from it. I had Bell's Palsy in the left side of my face when I was 16. There is no cure and there aren't very many treatments to my knowledge. This was over 30 years ago of course. So....
    But I did find this article informative.

    March 19, 2013 at 21:50 | Report abuse | Reply
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    Quelqu'un qui n'est pas un lecteur régulier et n'a pas l'intention de devenir l'un n'a rien à perdre, dans leur esprit.

    May 8, 2013 at 14:16 | Report abuse | Reply
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  49. Meghan

    I neve knew that I alawys thought it wa scarelt fever cause that's true you can go blind by scarelt fever you got to rember that back in the old days there is alot of ways were you can get blind by an illness cause it can't be stop so you can belive laura ingalls who lived when mary goes blind or you can just belive a person from the intrent it's up to you I hope yall have a great summer (:

    June 22, 2015 at 19:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. Kimberly gordon

    Could you tell me why they didn't try a blood transfusion for Charles Jr, since they were able to tell the problem was decreasing red blood cells & I've seen them do other transfusions...wondered how accurate it was as well...

    July 2, 2015 at 15:15 | Report abuse | Reply
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