KDLT Home KDLT on Facebook KDLT on Twitter Get the KDLT iPhone App Get the KDLT Android App

Why "Little House" Sister Went Blind



Bookmark and Share

Any fan of  Laura Ingalls Wilder's beloved "Little House" books knows how the author's sister Mary went blind: scarlet fever. But turns out that probably wasn't the cause, medical experts say, upending one of the more dramatic elements in the classic stories.

An analysis of historical documents, biographical records and other material suggests another disease that causes swelling in the brain and upper spinal cord was the most likely culprit. It was known as "brain fever" in the late 1800s, the setting for the mostly true stories about Wilder's pioneer family.
Scarlet fever was rampant and feared at the time, and it was likely often misdiagnosed for other illnesses that cause fever, the researchers said.

Wilder's letters and unpublished memoir, on which the books are based, suggest she was uncertain about her sister's illness, referring to it as "some sort of spinal sickness." And a registry at an Iowa college for blind students that Mary attended says "brain fever" caused her to lose her eyesight, the researchers said.

They found no mention that Mary Ingalls had a red rash that is a hallmark sign of scarlet fever. It's caused by the same germ that causes strep throat. It is easily treated with antibiotics that didn't exist in the 1800s and is no longer considered a serious illness.

Doctors used to think blindness was among the complications, but that's probably because they misdiagnosed scarlet fever in children who had other diseases, said study author Dr. Beth Tarini, a pediatrician and researcher at the University of Michigan.

Her study appears online Monday in Pediatrics.

It's the latest study offering a modern diagnosis for a historical figure. Others subjected to revisionists' microscope include Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, composer Wolfgang Mozart and Abraham Lincoln.

Tarini said as a girl she was a fan of the "Little House" books and wanted to research Mary Ingalls' blindness ever since scarlet fever came up during a medical school discussion.

"I raised my hand and said, 'Scarlet fever can make you go blind, right?'" The instructor hesitated and responded, "I don't think so."

The disease that Mary Ingalls probably had is called meningoencephalitis (muh-NING-go-en-sef-ah-LY-tis). It can be caused by bacteria and treated with antibiotics, but Tarini said it's likely she had the viral kind, which can be spread by mosquitoes and ticks.

The viral disease is fairly common today, particularly in summer months and can cause fever, headaches and sometimes seizures, said Dr. Buddy Creech, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University. Affected children typically require hospitalization but lasting effects are uncommon, Creech said.

Still, blindness can occur if the disease affects the optic nerve, and it's entirely possible that Mary Ingalls had the condition, he said.

Historian William Anderson, author of Laura Ingalls Wilder biography, said various theories about Mary Ingalls' blindness have been floating around for years. The new analysis provides credible evidence that it was caused by something other than scarlet fever, but it does nothing to discredit the books, Anderson said.

"From a literary standpoint, scarlet fever just seemed to be the most convenient way" to describe Mary's illness, he said.
< Prev Story Back To Top Next Story >
     

Sioux Falls Stampede Honor Longtime Fan  story with video

Over the years, Max Honke has collected a drawer full of mementos from the Sioux Falls Stampede ...

Vigil Held To Remember Dalton Williams  story with video

It's been two years since 16-year-old Dalton Williams was shot and killed by his ...

Gas Prices Plummeting In Sioux Falls  story with video

You could call it an early Christmas gift. Gas prices haven't been this low in ...

Massage Therapist Reacts To Prostitution Arrest  story with video  Dec. 18

Sioux Falls Breaks Building Permit Record  story with video  Dec. 18

Body Shops Around Sioux Falls Are Backed Up  Dec. 18

Teen Allegedly Holds Girlfriend Against Her Will  Dec. 18

Permit Approved For SD Anti-Police Brutality March  Dec. 18

Grain Elevator Collapses In Egan  Dec. 18

SFPD Looking For Casino Robbery Suspects  Dec. 18

SDN To Buy Sioux Valley Wireless  Dec. 18

SD Supreme Court Says Gambling Promos Not Taxable  Dec. 18

Wild Card 2 Ticket Sold In Huron Worth $6,000  Dec. 18

New Manager Named For SD State Fair  Dec. 18

ROTC Sergeant At BHSU Acquitted Of Rape Charge  Dec. 18

Final Reminders Of Iowa Casino Remain Temporarily  Dec. 18

Survey On Deer Licensing System 'Pretty Neutral'  Dec. 18

Mankato Man Recovering After Severe Brain Injury  Dec. 18

SD Supreme Court Says RV Seizure In Meth Case OK  Dec. 18

Federal Jury Finds Man Guilty Of Drug Conspiracy  Dec. 18

KDLT News Archive
     

SFPD Looking For Casino Robbery Suspects

Sioux Falls Police have released pictures of two ...

Massage Therapist Reacts To Prostitution Arrest  story with video

It was a little over a week ago that an employee at ...

SDN To Buy Sioux Valley Wireless

SDN Communications announced today its intentions to ...

Grain Elevator Collapses In Egan  Dec. 18

Teen Allegedly Holds Girlfriend Against Her Will  Dec. 18

Mankato Man Recovering After Severe Brain Injury  Dec. 18

Body Shops Around Sioux Falls Are Backed Up  Dec. 18

New Manager Named For SD State Fair  Dec. 18

KDLT News Archive
     

USD Women set school record for points  story with video

VERMILLION, S. D. – The South Dakota women's ...

Balanced attack leads SDSU over Arkansas/Little Rock  story with video

BROOKINGS, S. D. —Freshman Ellie Thompson (Chaska, Minn ...

Marshall, Jacks win in OT

LOGAN, Utah – George Marshall scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds in his ...

Bos hits game-winner for Coyotes  story with video  Dec. 18

Weber enjoying first job as a head coach  Dec. 18

Johnston knows tough schedule will help  story with video  Dec. 18

St. Pierre gets 3rd All-American award  story with video  Dec. 18

Nagy excited to have Marshall  story with video  Dec. 18

KDLT Sports Stories
     
Back To Top