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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Since it is stated that Laura, Carrie and Grace all had diabetes, one would think that Mary may also have had it. We know that the disease can bring on serious eye problems and perhaps that along with another illness caused the blindness. What also interest me with the Ingall's blood-line is the loss at an early age of male children. If you look into Henry the 8th family his children, brothers and male cousins didn't last very long either. Upon closer inspection it is speculated that diabetes ran in his blood-line too.
Or maybe they killed the male children.
I doubt that it was diabetes that helped cause Mary's blindness. They were diagnosed with diabetes when they were older. Mary lost her sight as a teenager.
It could also be because women typically last longer than men..even back then. Baby boys died more often than baby girls did, and men died more often than women (gun fights aside).
Laura had a brother and a son who both died in infancy.
Missy, women on the frontier actually had higher rates of death than men. Gun fights and Indian raids were far less common than book and media would lead us to believe. Death in childbirth or soon after was very common leading to women having a death rate 20-25% higher than men.
The Little House books are not strictly history nor was any claim made by Wilder or her daughter (who edited all the books) or her Estate that they were. They are Historical Fiction which means that various facts were rearranged some or modified to make the best story out of the information. Read up on Rose Wilder Lane, Laura's daughter, to know more about the production of the books.
Interesting to find out that there was some serious medical issues in the family. It would seem that diabetes and the death of the males would be something that would be interesting to explore, adding in the blindness issue, you might find some genetic issues that might even be of medical interest. We forget that some things we treat today were deadly back then, and how it is not so difficult to understand why people died early. Heck, hand washing and something so simple as washing out a cut were not known then!
Obviously not the same reason my mom said I would go blind when I was a teenager.
I too have often wondered about the loss of infant male children in that family line...
My paternal grandmother lost two little brothers to the pandemic flue around 1919. The four girls survived. She said it was well know then that small boys had a higher mortality rate when struck by one of the very many dangerous diseases that since have become treatable. I have read things to the same effect in later years. One article said it was due to the lesser length of the cromosones in the boys' xy. That last missing leg could potentially hold genes that would give the sufferer better resistance.
Laura did have a brother and a son who died as an infant. Her son didn't have a disease, he was killed in the fire that was set in the basement of the blind school when Albert was smoking and dropped the butt.
I grew up watching Little House On The Prairie and I don't remember the girls being diagnosed with diabetes on the show.
Maria: Albert Ingalls was a fictional character created for the Little House TV show. The real Mary Ingalls never married. Mary & Laura's brother died in infancy. Laura's baby boy also died.
Ulla, you are correct in that the early deaths of the male children only probably does have something to do with their XY, rather than XX chromosomes. We carry genes from both our parents, and there are many genetic conditions carried on the X chromosome that manifest more severely or sometimes fatally in males because they only have one X. In some conditions a female with the "affected gene" on one X and a "healthy gene" on the other X, will not be affected, but will be a carrier of the condition. She can pass the condition onto her son, who will be XY and he will be positive for the condition and depending on the condition, it can be fatal.
I really don't understand why modern society must "research" and debunk any literary book such as the Laura Ingals Wilder series. It is totally not relevant in today's world and detracts from the body of work of Ms. Wilder. Does it really matter why she wrote what she did about her sister's blindness? These researchers time would be better spent looking to cure and treat current illnesses today instead of trying to throw a shadow on a purely enjoyable and moral series of books. I am SO unimpressed with the researcher and the internet publishing it!
Probably because it's supposed to be a telling of true events? It isn't supposed to be fantasy. And since Scarlet fever DOESN'T cause permanent blindness this presented an inconsistency with reality. A Medical Inconsistency. One people believe and as the article says " "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.""
I totally agree!
I totally agree. The researcher probably should research childhood cancers and things that she may contact today.
Of course it matters, and it doesn't detract from the book, it's just that new info is important.
Curiosity on literary references have lead toward important discoveries. One that shocked the entire world: finding the truth behind the Iliad allowed to discover the place in which Troy actually was located. 7 cities, one on top of the other, were in that place and, if I remember correctly, the Troy of the Iliad was the one on the 4th layer.
Actually, Laura Ingalls Wilder's books are regarded as historical fiction ( meaning that although some of the people & events actually happened, others were either embellished or fabricated.) For example, the character of Nellie Oleson, in the books & TV series, was actually a composite character of two completely different people in real life. An author will often write a story that certainly has a basis in fact, but some of it will be fiction as well. Considering this all occurred in the 1800s, I'm sure Wilder's medical knowledge was certainly not as sophisticated as a writer of today. She could have been told that it was possibly the scarlet fever that caused Mary's blindness & chose to put that reason in her book.
I was about 7 when I watched the episode of Mary going blind from scarlet fever. A few months later I was sick and my mom took me to the doctor. I was already over the worst of it and feeling better. The doctor hearing the symptoms said he thought I had scarlet fever. I immediately started crying and they had no idea why. I finally got out that Mary went blind from scarlet fever and the doctor and my mom (who is a nurse) reassured me that I was not going to go blind. It was very scary for a few minutes!
It's good this researcher found the real cause of Mary's blindness, because the book has had such a large impact on our culture. When I was 7, I got scarlet fever. I had read some Little House books and had just finished Little Women. When the doctor told me I had scarlet fever, I remember exclaiming, "I'm going to die!" That is what I knew from books: that you either went blind or died from scarlet fever. That's misinformation. Coincidentally (I think), I did have poor eyesight and I remember once asking my eye doctor if it was because of scarlet fever and he said scarlet fever does weaken the optic nerve. So maybe he was a fan of Little House too? I don't know. But finding the truth is not spoiling the book.
I wonder how much of this Laura had explained to her when she was young. She was younger than Mary and probably wouldn't have understood what caused Mary's blindness, but she probably might have remembered that her sister had been very sick with Scarlett Fever awhile back. There's no explanation given as to how Mary might have contracted meningitis in her youth, so even if Laura learned anything about the true nature of Mary's blindness later in her adulthood, she wouldn't have been able to say anything about what caused Mary's sickness. It would have been strange to write "Mary's brain swelled up and she went blind"...but no one would know how she got sick in the first place. A terrifying notion for a children's book...
The reason, clearly stated in the article, is to allay fears that parents have when they hear a diagnosis of scarlet fever in their child. This study allows the doctor to assure the parents that blindness is not caused by scarlet fever, and so to reduce the parents' and child's stress.
Firstly, people can have hobbies. Likely they did it as a group for fun, research doesn't have to involve being paid. All there research involved reading up on things that they nerded over, it was likely that they just felt like sharing what they found rather than just letting it collect dust. As a nurse I can understand this. I am a pediatric nurse, I don't do research as my job, but I still browse research about topics that interest me. It wouldn't be much of a step up to then be a little more thorough and write about what I read and send it off to publishers. (I don't, I like reading but hate writing haha)
don't tell Oprah that the memoir is not true.
Umm... maybe I'm wrong here, but didn't Helen Keller also have Scarlet Fever? And didn't that make her blainf and deaf?
According to Wikipedia, Helen suffered a severe fever at 19 months of age which was either Scarlet Fever OR Meningitis. This would correspond with this Article's theory that Mary Ingalls contracted Meningitis, resulting in Blindness. Mary was much older when she became ill, and was therefore spared more severe complications.
I'm blainf! Oh lord help me I'm blainf!
Pioneer Girl has now been published, with extensive annotations. (This article is a few years old be now.) I am in the middle of reading it and haven't gotten to Mary's blindness yet, but it is clear that the scarlet fever episode occurred years earlier. The editor also makes clear that the children's books are extensively fictionalized.
Just what I was going to say. I finished the book several weeks ago and loved it!
just wondering why would anyone research this story if it happened it happened if not oh well the story was a great story and people change the story so many times in books so it will keep the readers happy that research time could have been used more effectively by researching the thing in our life today that is what I hate about todays research and I know why most of them do this kind of research it is because they need something to keep their grants coming but seriously don't you think aids and cancer could have used that money better for their research then some off the wall research just to try and prove a story to be a lie truth remains our society today focus more on lies being told then the truth that needs to be made real and open to the public in other words who cares what Mary ingles had 200 years ago that is why they call it the past
Seriously, Tim? You could see something in print that you know is likely inaccurate and just shrug it off? Not try to figure out what the facts were? Curiosity is what drives any research. If you lack it you don't learn. And those with no curiosity about the past are doomed to repeat it. I loved the Little House books as a child. For the story as well as the insight into another time and place. That can still inform me today on another continent.
^^^^^^World's longest run on sentence right there ^^^^
At some point in time Mary Ingalls attended a school for the blind in Vinton, Iowa. In the register of that school the cause of Mary's blindness is listed as "brain fever". The simple conclusion would be that the term "brain fever" fell into disuse over the years in favor of something more technical and the closest term Laura knew when she wrote the books was scarlet fever.
How very sad that this happened. It sounds like it could have taken her life. What a tough time for the Ingalls family.
Scarlet fever is easily treatable TODAY. Not then, however.
Even into the middle of the twentieth century, strep throat (which is the progenitor of scarlet fever) could be fatal. My mother's oldest brother died at the age of 13 in 1959 after an untreated case of strep developed into rheumatic fever and fatally weakened his heart.
It amazes me how many people still have wrong concepts about different diseases. I try to read as much as I can when I have a problem. The Internet provides today some serious resources for people to get informed. I actually went to the dentist the other day and had to tell him what to do. He was more interested in making money than healing me.
If you had to tell him what to do, I think it's time to find a new dentist.
I really love all these folks who think that just because they can research on the internet, they automatically become doctors, professors, etc. and know it all!
I grew up in the town where Laura wrote the books and I read them every day. Some people just have to try to show they are so smart and "research" things that there is no way they can really research them!!! If it wasn't scarlet fever then that is still what the Ingalls thought it was. Back in that day it was hard to do tests and even see a doctor to know what caused things. I am sure a lot of people died of cancer back then that had no idea what it was and called it something else. We have gotten too smart for our britches now. It is wonderful that we can identify so many diseased now but there are still things that stump doctors today and it takes finding the ONE who has seen something maybe once in their life to know what you have. It was much harder back then so don't try to make it look like Laura lied about what was wrong with Mary.
I did not mean every day, I meant every year.
yes, the ones of us that watched the show, they never said mary had scarlet fever the year she went blind. charles told Dr. that Mary had scarlet fever when she was younger. also, it was a TV show based on books Laura wrote, everything wasn't exactly as it was in real life.
it was a tv show.. I am sure they took lots of liberties with lots of things. For a medical person to say " oh I saw this on a tv show so it must be true is ridiculous
I always thought it was a fictionalized account anyhow but if I am wrong on that account the question about why Laura would say scarlet fever if it wasn't is not to hard. At that time they probably did THINK it was from the scarlet fever. Another thought is that for book purposes she may had simplified by saying a type of fever since things were very unclear. That is done and can be very understandable. It wouldn't had worked if she just said, "Mary got sick and went blind." The findings are interesting and sounds like it probably was viral meningoencephalitis.
In Gone with the Wind isn't scarlet fever what killed Scarlett's mother?
No – it was typhoid.
As a fan I find this fascinating. Laura's books were always understood by me to be a fictionalized version of her life. After all, there is dialogue in them and who remembers word for word every conversation you've ever had with everyone ever in your life word for word? No one. So, you take your memories and build stories from them. This requires making things up because no one has perfect recall of their whole life. I think what the researchers did was cool.
"who remembers word for word every conversation you've ever had with everyone ever in your life word for word? No one."....
Mary, I am high functioning Autistic (Asperger's)....... I can remember every conversation I have ever had with everyone ever in my life word for word....... In most cases I can also remember the clothes the people involved were wearing, what the weather was doing outside that day, etc.
I think it was a stroke,spot of people don't know but you can have a heart attack or stroke at any age.my friend is a diebitic ,they said he can go blind but nothing about paralyzing you,which can happen if you have a stroke.very puzzling
Yup, this is exactly what I read when I went researching into it
Blindness from diabetes primarily comes from degenerative retinopathy (degeneration of the nerves inside the back of the eye), not from a stroke. While that is possible it is much more rare comparatively.
Did our tax dollars pay for this study into the cause of Mary Ingalls's blindness? I bet it did. This smells like a government funded type of thing.
Get a life
It's a tv show,people.Some things happened as the show depicts,and some didn't.She actually went blind from viral meningoencephalitis .And,she never married,she lived with her family members,first her parents until their deaths,and then Grace ,and Carrie.....
I remember my sister and I having scarlet fever when I was in high school. Neither of us had any eye problems during the whole incident.
I have read all of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books. I always found them in the FICTION section of my local library. So if I am not mistaken....isn't fiction....made up. Yes, there were some FACTS in each of her books, but not all of the information was true.As for the show.....there were a lot of things that were not real. Just because Laura wrote that Mary had contracted Scarlet Fever and eventually went blind from it may have been because that is what the DRs. back then told their parents. Just because Scarlet Fever is treatable today...doesn't mean it was back then. Who cares if the books told the truth or not....It is not going to change the fact the she went blind and lived like that for the remainder of her life. There was a point where they made a mention of her being able to see bits of color when she stood near windows, but never fully got her site back. Why not study something that people have today that we are in need of a cure for. Stop worrying about what people had a long time ago. It won't change anything. They are still gone.
Maybe take a chill pill. People can research whatever they want to really, and who elected you arbiter of what is worth and not worth someone's time? I find it interesting reading to know that even though her works were fictionalized versions they did possibly think her sister's blindness was attributed to ailments different than what most probably caused it. Just like people used to believe that evil spirits were the causes of maladies centuries ago. That's all. No reason to burst a vessel decrying the abject horrors of someone spending time doing research on this.
Actually, the scene you are remembering about seeing colors in certain lights was when Mary was describing going shopping with a friend of hers, in college. It was the friend who could see the colors, not Mary, herself.
The important part of this research is that perhaps, it may help people today, who are still under the impression that Scarlet Fever can make you go blind (largely as a result of books like LTOTP), understand that it wasn't Scarlet Fever, and that it is highly unlikely to occur today. The fact that the research focuses on the Little House books draws many, many of us to read it, and helps educate all of us on current medical treatments.
The first book LIW wrote was Pioneer Girl, written for adults, which didn't sell (but has now been published because of the interest of her fans). You are right about the fictionalized aspect of the children's books. Wilder and her daughter then fictionalized the stories in the series for publication for children, leaving out the parts Wilder and her daughter, Rose, felt were inappropriate for children, and embellishing the truth to make it more real, and a more compelling story, for the age group it was intended for. After all, she was two when they moved into Indian Territory, and 4 in the Big Woods. I know I only remember bits and pieces, from ages 2 to 4.
In a speech to the Detroit Book Fair, in 1937, she said "All that I have told is true but it is not the whole truth."
I don't know why that their is such a fuss over whether Mary was blind or not since it was a Story that was very popular! So who cares!!!!!
You apparently cared enough to leave a comment
Considering the fact that Laura Ingalls Wilder (2/7/1867-2/10/1957) wrote her books when she did, the medical industry was still very young compared to today. She wrote her books between the years of 1932 and 1943. Consider what the medical field was like at that time of publishing. We can NOW say what caused things that happened to people back then because we can research them better now. It is nice to know what really happened to Mary, but for heavens sake people, take a chill pill. I loved those books because it gave me insight to what was endured back then. Not for what was medically right or wrong. If they ask, explain it to your kids.
the researcher needs to remember that back in the old days, people had different names for diseases and conditions then we do now . "Dropsey and Consumption" are a couple that come to mind. If Mary was young when she had Scarlett Fever maybe Laura (being younger when Mary went blind) just associated the two. That's my guess
My grandmother was deaf from scarlet fever......
Yep. My great uncle went blind from scarlet fever. Can happen.
Someone spent 10 years of there life researching why Mary had gone blind? To what end? Will this information help anyone?
Yeah, actually, there is. If my child ever gets Scarlett Fever, I will rest easier knowing she won't go blind.
Yes. If my child ever gets Scarlett Fever, I will rest easier knowing she won't go blind.
I will just say I had scarlett fever brought on by strep throat when I was 10 and now am 41 and still have 20/20 vision..lol
All of you people whining about the research and how it was a waste of time need to get a life. If it's such a waste of time why are you reading and commenting on it?
I have read the autobiography (maybe it was a biography?) of Laura Ingalls Wilder and it says in there that some aspects of her life were dramatized for the TV show. Mary was also never married. So Adam never existed. It's just a show based on some actual events–though a favorite of mine!
I watched Little House on the Prairie from the beginning. If I remember right, Mary went blind when she and Laura were playing outside near the creek, their favorite place. They ran home chasing each other and Mary lost her glasses. Laura went back to check on Mary and she was on her knees crying because she could not see and her glasses were broken. It was summer and warm out, Mary was sweating up a storm. Laura helped Mary get home then they called for Doc Baker to examine her.
But honestly, I feel that the Laura Ingalls book collection and television show was something our generation will never forget. It allowed people to be young again and appreciate what we have in our lives now. Michael Landon was so clever in expressing what family life should be like. For people who did not have brothers, or sisters, it was so much fun to watch Laura get into situations with Nellie or her sisters. She was always Pa's little girl.
Can you imagine if we lived the way they did in today's time? People would not make it without their cell phones!
Back in those days they really didn't know what caused illnesses. They thought malaria was "fever n ague" and caused by eating watermelons. They thought whatever Mary had was easier classified as "scarlet fever" and of course there's the catch-all "consumption" category under which many other illnesses were filed.
Your last paragraph is very accurate. My son at age of three had scarlet fever. When the doctor told me and saw the look on my face and said, "You're thinking of The Velveteen Rabbit, aren't you?" And then told me that book was written before antibiotics.
Shh!! Don't tell the non-vaxers that contagious diseases can cause blindness. They don't want to know that!
My grandfather, his brother and sister were hit with scarlett fever when their family was living in the Dakota Territories in the 1880s. His brother died, his sister escaped without permanent damage, and my grandfather was rendered almost totally deaf. In spite of his deafness he graduated from college and became a pioneer orthodontist.
someone in troy went blind maybe?
Fascinating comments here. What stood out for me is that the author said, "Frankenstein", "Little Women" and the little house books are from the same period. Not so at all. "Frankenstein" was published in 1818, "Little Women" decades after that and the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder long after that. I don't know all the dates but I would say that over 100 years separates the work of Mary Shelley ("Frankenstein") from the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
This was published in the journal "Pediatrics" in March, 2013, not February, 2016.
I believe that the fever that caused Helen Keller's deafness and blindness resulted from a fever thought to be scarlett fever or meningitis at that the time.
I've had scarlet fever many times as a child. What it sounds like Mary had was Chiari Malformation and/or intracranial hypertension. I have the first. Either can cause blindness and severe headaches and spine pain among other symptoms.
There were a vast number of inconsistencies in both the books and the popular TV show. The territory the family lived on and that most of the town was on, was actually land previously granted to the Native Americans, and the founders of this 'Walnut Grove' refused to acknowledge it... the drove off the Indians and they were all illegally squatting on that land. The manner that Laura wrote her family story completely eliminates this fact, but they were under persistent attack by really angry Indians who wanted them off their land, and it only stopped when the rail line came thru and the remaining Indians were basically slaughtered by the military.
They only lived in Walnut Grove a short time, according to the books. Most of the period covered by the books, they lived in or near De Smet, Iowa.
My mom had Scarlet Fever in 1946 and she went blind for a week. So debunk that. She remembered it clearly. This started up other ailments she had in life.
I thought that Helen Keller went blind and deaf from scarlet fever.
I had scarlet fever twice as a kid. The second attack I remember real well because it caused the outer skin to peal off my hands as a young kid. I think I was in kindergarten at the time. I didn't do blind, but because near sighted in my teenage years.
One important thing about the bacteria that causes strep throat is it is very important to treat it with antibiotics right away. If left too long the bacterial infection can become chronic and very difficult or impossible to get rid of completely. One treatment is a long term regimen of taking a daily dose of penicillin or a monthly injection of liquid penicillin. If it works, the infection will be fully cleared. If not, the patient is stuck with it hiding somewhere in their body from where it will periodically flare up. To keep it from doing so, the antibiotic treatment is continued for life.
Untreated strep infections can also cause heart damage. There are still many elderly people who had strep infections before the availability of penicillin and even after it was available but still in short supply, so they couldn't get it. Bacterial diseases that respond to penicillin (not all of them do) were still a big problem after WW2 for a while due to short supplies. During the war it was mostly reserved for military use – didn't want an injured soldier to die from an infection after being patched up. He had to survive to get back in the fight if he didn't suffer a permanently crippling injury.
Then there are those who got strep when penicillin was available but their parents didn't take them to a hospital until it was too late for it to be effective. My father was one of those, got it sometime in the late 40's and has to take a low dose penicillin daily to keep it in check. Without it, it flares up and causes pain all over his right side. Took years and some online medical research to dig up this information before the VA would prescribe the penicillin. Whenever he'd need dental work done they'd prescribe a big dose of penicillin (because he'd had an untreated strep infection) and the pain would stop – but that "had nothing to do with" his old strep infection.
Come on, we all know it was injuries she suffered when she was kicked in the head by that horse a season or two before.
Back then it was hard to know what illness people had. My brother died in 1950 and the doctor said he had bow hives, which is not even a disease, so we still don't know what was wrong with him.
If you look and read you will see that in real life there was no sister named Mary and that Willie was really Laura's brother who was blind and was run over by a wagon and killed. But then her stroies are just based on her life but who cares they are good books and tv TV show was great.
I had Scarlet Fever as a child as did my sisters. I remember the palms of my hands peeling a bit but that was it. No one went blind in my family.
I wish as much energy, interest, and research were invested in the debunking of the "historical fiction" in the Bible.