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An analysis of historical documents, biographical records and other material suggests another disease that causes swelling in the brain and upper spinal cord was the most likely culprit.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Wilder's letters and unpublished memoir, on which the books are based, suggest she was uncertain about her sister's illness, referring to it as "some sort of spinal sickness."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

Parade of Lights Kicks Off Holiday Season  story with video

Lights, holiday floats, and music made their way through downtown Sioux ...

Airline CEO Has High Hopes In Pierre-Denver Flight

A regional airline based in Ohio has high hopes for a Pierre to Denver ...

Rice Wins Appeal, 'Suspension Vacated'

Ray Rice has won the appeal of his indefinite suspension by the NFL, which has been ...

Two Men Arrested For Auto Shop Beer Theft  Nov. 28

Police: Man Put Clerk In Choke Hold And Struck Her  Nov. 28

36-Year-Old Man Dies In Rollover Crash In SD  Nov. 28

Red Cross Volunteer Returns From Helping In NY  Nov. 28

Man Charged With Murder In SF Woman's Death  story with video  Nov. 28

Cash, Credit Or Debit This Holiday Season?  story with video  Nov. 28

Pierre, Fort Pierre Grocery Stores Being Sold  Nov. 28

Kern Brings Experience To SD Supreme Court  Nov. 28

Nebraska, South Dakota To Devise Zebra Mussel Plan  Nov. 28

Growers Grateful For Higher Christmas Tree Prices  Nov. 28

Man Accused Of Having Sex With Minor Sentenced  Nov. 28

Good Holiday Shopping Season Expected In SD  Nov. 28

Laura And Brian Preview This Weekend's Movies  story with video  Nov. 28

23rd Annual Parade Of Lights Hits DTSF  Nov. 28

The Do's And Don'ts Of Holiday Shopping  story with video  Nov. 28

The Daily Scoop 11-28-2014  story with video  Nov. 28

SMSU Volleyball Player Battles Cancer  story with video  Nov. 27

KDLT News Archive
     

Man Charged With Murder In SF Woman's Death  story with video

A 57-year-old homeless man is facing murder charges following the ...

36-Year-Old Man Dies In Rollover Crash In SD

A 36-year-old South Dakota man is dead following a ...

23rd Annual Parade Of Lights Hits DTSF

Hundreds of people will descend on Downtown Sioux Falls Friday evening ...

Police: Man Put Clerk In Choke Hold And Struck Her  Nov. 28

Two Men Arrested For Auto Shop Beer Theft  Nov. 28

Cash, Credit Or Debit This Holiday Season?  story with video  Nov. 28

Man Accused Of Having Sex With Minor Sentenced  Nov. 28

Pierre, Fort Pierre Grocery Stores Being Sold  Nov. 28

KDLT News Archive
     

Birch Bucket Boosts Skyforce Over Maine  story with video

Sioux Falls, SD (Nov. 28, 2014) – Khem Birch's put-back with 1. 2 ...

Warner Volleyball Dynasty Built On Desire  story with video

The Warner Monarchs don't win the state title ever year. It just feels ...

Stampede Slip Up Against Gamblers  story with video

Sioux Falls, SD—The Sioux Falls Stampede rallied to tie from a 2-0 ...

Jacks Ready To Rough Up Bobcat Quarterbacks  story with video  Nov. 28

Mustangs thrilled to be headed to Elite 8  story with video  Nov. 27

Augvie women win in Alaska  Nov. 27

Butler loves Jacks chances in playoffs  story with video  Nov. 27

Robinson inspires her teammates and coach  story with video  Nov. 27

KDLT Sports Stories
     
Back To Top