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Mary Ingalls Blindness: Scarlet Fever May Not Have Been The Cause

Mary Ingalls Blindness

Little House fans may be surprised to hear that Mary Ingalls’ blindness may not have been caused by scarlet fever, as the beloved book series led readers to believe.

A new study shows that a brain infection is most likely the medical event that blinded Mary in 1879 at the age of 14. Mary was a central figure in the series of books which chronicled the lives of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family during the 1800’s.

CBS News writes that the Little House series, based on Wilder’s letters and unpublished memoir, detailed older sister Mary’s tragic loss of sight. At the time it was assumed that the family’s bout with scarlet fever resulted in the girl’s blindness.

A new study, published on February 4 in Pediatrics, finds that the eldest Ingalls girl was probably the victim of viral meningoencephalitis. The virus causes both the brain and the membranes which protect the central nervous system to become inflamed.

Dr. Beth Tarini, a pediatrician and researcher at the University of Michigan, is one of the study’s authors. Having read about Mary Ingalls’ blindness she decided to get to the bottom of its cause:

“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. I would ask other doctors, but no one could give me a definitive answer, so I started researching it.”

According to The Associated Press, Tarini conducted an analysis of historical documents, biographical records and other materials to determine if scarlet fever was in fact the culprit.

The research produced no valid findings in favor of the scarlet fever theory. None of the documents reviewed reflected the presence of signature side effects related to the illness.

Descriptions of the symptoms the Mary suffered from were found to match those caused by brain infections such as viral meningoencephalitis. The study also uncovered an 1889 register which listed “brain fever” as the cause of the girl’s blindness.

Researchers can only speculate as to why the books seemed certain that scarlet fever led to the loss of Mary’s eyesight. Sarah S. Allexan, one of the study’s authors and a medical student at the University of Colorado, spoke about a possible scenario:

“Laura’s memoirs were transformed into the Little House novels. Perhaps to make the story more understandable to children, the editors may have revised her writings to identify scarlet fever as Mary’s illness because it was so familiar to people and so many knew how frightening a scarlet fever diagnosis was.”

Are you one of the many readers who followed the story of Mary Ingalls’ blindness in the Little House series?

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37 Responses to “Mary Ingalls Blindness: Scarlet Fever May Not Have Been The Cause”

  1. Anonymous

    and why do we care about a fictional diagnosis on a fictional character in a fictional book? have you no other reason to waste time and money than this?

  2. Michelle Llewellyn

    I also found it interesting to learn that this intelligent and brave older sister Laura Ingalls loved and admired so much never married (sorry TV show fans) but lived with her parents until her death. Everyone should read these books.

  3. Andrea Mossontte

    Interesting study! I used to read the Laura Ingalls' books and I do remember it written that Mary was blinded by scarlet fever. From what I've read, scarlet fever can cause damage to your heart (if you're not treated by antibiotics) but I've never heard about it causing blindness. While doing genealogy, I found that my great-great grandmother's younger sister died from scarlet fever ("scarletina") at the age of 8.

  4. Anonymous

    the books were based on real people.. do you research before you leave snarky comments

  5. Pat Rice

    Please, read the article instead of commenting just based on the headline. It makes you look totally ignorant.

  6. Christina DeMartin Barrett

    Apparently you never read LHOTHP. If you did, you would know a) Mary Ingalls was in fact a REAL person and b) that the books are based on the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and are rooted in FACT

  7. Cheri Pugh

    agshare946 since these are not fictional characters nor fictional books but real American people who wrote about their real lives in early America…. if you think it is a waste of time and money then why are you on this link?

  8. Kate Schear

    There are a lot of differences between the LHOTP books and TV series. You would have to read the books to know the differences.

  9. Debbie Taylor Scott

    I have visted their homeplace in Missouri, and yes agshare, they were real people. If you ever make it to Mansfield, MO you might want to check it out.

  10. Dorothy Hardy

    been there myself, wonderful experience……why do all this study and bring this info out NOW!!!

  11. Catherine Vassallo

    Catherine Vassallo – Malta, Europe.

    Watching 'The Little House on the Prairie' was, for myself and my siblings, something we looked forward to every Wednesday many, many years ago. Laura was my favourite, and we all admired all of them immensely. Later, my uncle who lived in the States, sent us the book, which I still have (this was a good 37 years ago). This was when we realised that the series was actually based on a real little girl's life, which of course made it all the more interesting' My twin sister and I can still hum the signature tune of the series!

  12. Grace Morioka

    Growing up, I adored the "Little House" books. It is part of the fabric of American literature, and was a beloved TV series here too. Althougth the series strayed greatly from the actual books and story of Laura's family's lives, it is still a glimpse into turn of the century living and the rapid changes brought to the prarie by immigration from the East to the West. I had always wondered about the Scarlet Fever diagnosis too, so it makes sense that it was a brain infection that caused Mary's blindness, and her unfortunate early death in real life. Very interesting information almost 150 years later!

  13. Hope Tamara

    That was a fascinating story about Mary Ingalls, seems to make sense! I loved reading & re-reading Laura's books,& have read them again as a adult & find them more interesting w/a grown-up mind, too bad she is no longer w/us.

  14. Kelley Maybank Vilenski

    She lived with Carrie, little sis, and her husband for a while.

  15. Anonymous

    It amazes me that repliers like agshare1946 can comment without doing research. Just in case you don't know from reading the other comments, she was a real person as was Laura Ingalls Wilder.

  16. Mary Catlett

    Mary not only never married, remaining with Ma after Pa's death — but it seems they were desperately poor after that. A young neighbor was quoted as asking her own parents, "Does everyone give them food?" And yes, Mary lived with Carrie after Ma died, but really didn't live many years longer.

  17. Mary Catlett

    Agshare –many people were not only touched but informed by these books. We could picture life in a different era, we knew the characters as we knew our own family. True, there is fictionalization of some issues either for convenience or misunderstanding, but there is still a great deal to learn about that era, as well as how the Little House books evolved based on Laura's writing and daughter Rose's editing and crafting — as well as other editors. For anyone traveling the East side of Iowa, Laura's papers (which went to daughter Rose's estate) are housed at the Herbert Hoover Museum in West Branch. Laura's daughter Rose Wilder was actually a world traveler and reporter into her 80s and was one of the first biographers of Hoover, hence the location of her own and her mother's papers! You can read letters from children, now many years gone, from multiple countries expressing their love for the book — wishing for more -= and often comisserating with Laura's "hardship" as Mary's sister: "How can you get mad at a blind person?"

  18. Ernie Jackson

    Wasn't Melissa Sue Anderson completely babe-a-liscious as Mary Ingalls on the 1970's NBC show "Little House on the Prairie." In her 50s from the pictures I've seen she's still babe-a-liscious today.

  19. Ginny Byler

    Laura Ingalls Wilder did not tell the whole story in her books. I have researched and found many differences. Here is just a short list for anyone who is interested. 1. There was no Nellie Olson. She was a combination of 3 different girls who used to bully Laura as a child. 2. In the Little House in the Big Woods, she was Carrie, Carrie was not born until Little House on the Prairie. 3. Charles Ingalls Jr. was born and died between Prairie and Plum Creek. He was never mentioned in any book. 4. Mary had a stroke according to the research I found. She never married and did live with Carrie until her death. That part is right. 5. Almanzo had a stroke shortly after marrying Laura, and walked with a limp the rest of his life. 6. Laura died in her 90's. She lived with sister Grace until her death. 7. Laura's daughter Rose, was a author in her own right and was a consultant on the series until her death in the late 70"s.

  20. Kay Rolyat

    Oh the memories those precious books bring back. I am 54 years old and my 3rd grade teacher would read a chapter from the "Little House In the Big Woods" everyday. I read the entire series of books even as I got older and then read them to my daughter. Mary's blindness brought tears to the eyes of most readers, both young and old.

    Such a time of innocence…….. How I miss those days! I encourage everyone to read these old books.

  21. Pam Blockhus

    Christina DeMartin Barrett
    I live in Iowa near Plumb Creek where the family had a sod home (on the banks of Plum Creek). The home has deteriorated of course, but the pile of dirt is still there. Also, Mary Ingalls's name is in the registrar's book in Iowa's school for the blind, in Vinton, Iowa. It's an interesting place to visit.

  22. Carrie Evert

    Catherine, did you know there are 6 or 7 more books in the series of Little House on the Prarie? The first book is Little House in the Big Woods. My favorite is The Long Winter (I read it every 2 or 3 years, during Autumn, it makes me feel cozy and fortunate.) She even wrote a book about Almanzo, her husband. It's called Farmer Boy. She lived to be 92 and Manzo lived to be 90 although they were separated by about 8 or 10 years. I've been to all the sites and it's worth the trip. She was short, like me, only 4'10", and her counters were a perfect fit for me. Lovely Lady.

  23. Carrie Evert

    yeah, but guess who was the real pill (and that's putting it nicely) on Little House… YEP, Melissa Sue Anderson. Pretty is is not always as pretty does, I guess. Melissa Gilbert (Laura) and Alison Arngram were best friends in childhood and are still good friends, to this day. Alison's book, Little Bitch on the Prarie is a real hoot!

  24. Catherine Vassallo

    Thanks for the info, Carrie, very kind of you:-) No, I had no idea there were more books in the series, but I will definitely be looking them up, wonder if they're still in print. I would love to one day visit the States, and perhaps even the sites you mentioned. One day, one day…. I live in hope :-)

  25. Catherine Vassallo

    Thank you Linda for the information. Unfortunately, where I live, we don't get the same tv channels you do. I live in Malta, which is a tiny, tiny island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Malta is very hard to spot on a map, since it's so small, but you'll find it below the island of Sicily, South East of Italy. :-)

  26. Judy Crocker

    I am in my sixties, and love The Little House series. I have recenty re-read all the books, and when the series was featured again in re-runs on our cable station, followed it faithfully. I watched the series with my children back in the eighties, and it was a favorite in our household, something we could enjoy together. When the debates and campaigns were at their nastiest, I often resorted to watching Little House on The Prairie, just to relax my brain, and de-stress. Michael Landon was a genius to develop such a powerful series, and it will continue to be loved and enjoyed by adults and children for years and years to come.

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