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An analysis of historical documents, biographical records and other material suggests another disease that causes swelling in the brain and upper spinal cord was the most likely culprit.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Wilder's letters and unpublished memoir, on which the books are based, suggest she was uncertain about her sister's illness, referring to it as "some sort of spinal sickness."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 >
     

How Do You Think The Events Center Looks?  story with video

City leaders have made their feelings known about the rippling of the panels ...

Ordinance To Ban Roaming Cats Fails In Brookings

Cats in Brookings are still free to roam the city.     A proposed ordinance that ...

Another Car Versus Bike Crash In Sioux Falls

There has been another car versus bicycle crash in Sioux Falls. It happened a little after ...

Sioux Falls Updates Bicycle Safety Plan  story with video  Jul. 23

Hundreds of Cars To Appear At Canton Car Show  Jul. 23

Update: SF Police Find Missing Woman  Jul. 23

Man Ordered To Prison For Robbing Spearfish Store  Jul. 23

Minnesota Hires Top Medical Pot Official  Jul. 23

DNR Announces Plans For 'Conservative' Deer Season  Jul. 23

Great Plains Zoo Duck Dabbles In The Arts  Jul. 23

Unauthorized Charges Linked To Fair Tickets  Jul. 23

South Dakota PUC Rules Against Wind Power Producer  Jul. 23

Meade County Road Collapse Hampering Traffic  Jul. 23

Formerly Unstable Deadwood Building Has New Life  Jul. 23

Beresford Girl Wins Trip To The White House   story with video  Jul. 23

Quarry In SF Will Operate For 15 More Years  story with video  Jul. 23

City Leaders Learn More About 'Ripple Effect'   story with video  Jul. 22

Fulton Woman's Death Not Suspicious   Jul. 22

SBA Reaches Out To Storm Victims  story with video  Jul. 22

City Inspecting Sump Pumps In SF Homes  story with video  Jul. 22

KDLT News Archive
     

Update: SF Police Find Missing Woman

Sioux Falls Police have found a missing person. Tori Jean Bruggeman ...

Another Car Versus Bike Crash In Sioux Falls

There has been another car versus bicycle crash in Sioux ...

Quarry In SF Will Operate For 15 More Years  story with video

If you've ever been to Sioux Falls, and driven near Madison ...

Unauthorized Charges Linked To Fair Tickets  Jul. 23

South Dakota PUC Rules Against Wind Power Producer  Jul. 23

Sioux Falls Updates Bicycle Safety Plan  story with video  Jul. 23

Formerly Unstable Deadwood Building Has New Life  Jul. 23

Meade County Road Collapse Hampering Traffic  Jul. 23

KDLT News Archive
     

Brookings, SF West make State "A" Legion Tournament

The Brookings Bandits beat Watertown 12-7 Wednesday at the Region 1-A Legion ...

Birds drop 3rd straight at St. Paul

For a second straight game, the Sioux Falls Canaries (22-43) saw their ...

Scheels Plays of the Week from July 14th-20th  story with video

Kelly Stewart has your Scheels Plays of the Week from July 14th-20th. ...

Donohue's 67 highlights final day at State Junior Golf  story with video  Jul. 22

Tuesday's Legion Region recap  story with video  Jul. 22

SDSU names Wood new softball coach  Jul. 22

Birds fall at St. Paul  Jul. 21

Tough day for Spirit Lake and Lemars at state softball  story with video  Jul. 21

KDLT Sports Stories
     
Back To Top