Don't Blame Little House Blindness on Scarlet Fever
Mary Ingalls probably had meningoencephalitis, or brain fever
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 4, 2013 2:14 PM CST
The cover of 'Little House on the Prairie.'   (

(Newser) – 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 An analysis of historical documents, biographical records, and other material suggests another disease, meningoencephalitis, which causes swelling in the brain and upper spinal cord, was the most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Wilder's letters and unpublished memoir, on which the books are based, suggest she was uncertain about her sister's illness, referring to it as "some sort of spinal sickness."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. Meningoencephalitis is easily treated with antibiotics that didn't exist in the 1800s and is no longer considered a serious illness. Blindness can occur if the disease affects the optic nerve.

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Showing 2 of 8 comments
Feb 4, 2013 2:29 PM CST
Isn't it so nice that we can second guess events that happened hundreds of years ago. Like the reason matters now. Was there really good medical records back then? Did GE have a secret hidden medical computer that only a few people are privy? Why don't they just exhume the body and do DNA testing to see if there is any evidence of virus capsid protein fragments, antibodies or antigens to such. Lets pick this thing to pieces and make the survivors and beneficiaries of Ingalls pay restitution to the world for the outright falsehoods they caused humanity.
Feb 4, 2013 2:17 PM CST
What a complete waste of minutes of my life....this comment is more productive.