laura ingalls blindness little house on the prairie lionsgate Mary Ingalls blindness likely caused by brain infection, not scarlet fever as per 'Little House on the Prairie'A new study shows Mary Ingalls, older sister to Laura Ingalls Wilder, likely suffered from viral meningoencephalitis, a brain disease — not scarlet fever as depicted in the “Little House on the Prairie” children’s book series, and the later TV show and mini-series. Researchers compared newspaper reports, school records, and Wilder’s memoirs with information now known about scarlet fever and other diseases.

“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,” says the study’s author and pediatrician, Dr. Beth A. Tarini. Since no one could give her a definitive answer, she began the research project.

Tarini says a newspaper report described Ingalls — who went blind at the age of 14 in 1879 — as having “spinal sickness.” Various other symptoms, believed at the time to be stroke-related, also suggest the viral brain infection to modern doctors. Additionally, a bacterial infection of the brain would have led to later learning difficulties, but Wilder’s memoirs described her sister as very intelligent after the blindness, and she famously attended a school for the blind.

Researchers say nerve inflammation brought on by meningoencephalitis may have caused the temporary paralysis believed at the time to be suggestive of a stroke.

Tarini and her colleagues hypothesize book editors changed Ingalls’ disease to the more familiar scarlet fever — a well-known disease with high fatality rates leading up to the 20th century — in order to be more understandable to children. The problem being, a scarlet fever diagnosis still strikes fear in the hearts of parents today.

“Familiar literary references like these are powerful — especially when there is some historical truth to them,” says Dr. Tarini. “This research reminds us that our patients may harbor misconceptions about a diagnosis and that we, as physicians, need to be aware of the power of the words we use — because in the end, illness is seen through the eyes of the patient.”