Little House on the Prairie: What Really Caused Mary’s Blindness?

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Anyone who ever read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved tales of the Little House on the Prairie remembers the heartbreaking moment when the family realized that older daughter Mary Ingalls had lost her sight.

But was it really from scarlet fever? A new study published in the journal Pedatrics says it was most likely the result of brain and spinal cord inflammation.

“Since I was in medical school, I had wondered about whether scarlet fever could cause blindness, because I always remembered Mary’s blindness from reading the ‘Little House’ stories and knew that scarlet fever was once a deadly disease,” said study co-author Beth Tarini, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, in a statement.

Tarini and a team of researchers studied data on blindness and infectious disease in the late 19th century as well as papers and letters written by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

In Wilder’s unpublished memoir “Pioneer Girl,” there is no mention of Mary contracting scarlet fever before going blind.

“She never says scarlet fever. She never says rash,” Tarini told CNN.  Instead, she described Mary’s illness as “some sort of spinal sickness” in a letter to her daughter Rose.

“Meningoencephalitis [a disease similar to meningitis] could explain Mary’s symptoms, including the inflammation of the facial nerve that left the side of her face temporarily paralyzed,” Tarini said. “It could also lead to inflammation of the optic nerve that would result in a slow, progressive loss of sight.” 

So why would Wilder change the story in her books? Researchers believe it was an attempt to make the experience more relatable to her readers.

Between 1840 and 1883, scarlet fever was one of the most common infectious causes of death among children in the United States.

Did you read the Little House on the Prairie books as a child?

Image source: By Laura Ingalls Wilder (scan from the Internet) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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