Mary Ingalls’ blindness took the family by surprise, one terrible winter in the 1800s, and the older sister of author Laura Ingalls Wilder had her role, in life and in the memoirs, changed forever. Readers and viewers of the “Little House on the Prairie” book and television series have always thought the tragedy was due to scarlet fever, reports New York Daily News on Monday, Feb. 4. A new study published in Pediatrics refutes that long-held notion.
A form of meningitis, known at the time as “brain fever,” was far more likely to have been the cause of Mary Ingalls’ blindness, which was both unexpected and irreversible. Scarlet fever was a better known and more feared disease at the time, so it was often misdiagnosed as a blanket name for serious illness, even without the tell-tale red rash.
Laura Ingalls never seemed certain of the cause of her sister’s blindness, but records show the Iowa school for the blind, which Mary later attended, enrolled her as a victim of “brain fever.” Medical experts no longer list blindness as a complication of scarlet fever, which can now be cured easily by antibiotics.
Dr. Beth Tarini, a pediatrician and researcher at the University of Michigan, did the study, which appeared online on Monday. Dr. Tarini was a fan of the books as a child, and she had wanted to undertake the study since she learned scarlet fever was not a known cause of blindness. Laura Wilder would have been proud of her efforts.