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.”