Scarlet fever likely not the cause of Mary Ingalls' blindness: study

Mary Ingalls, older sister to Little House on the Prairie author and heroine Laura Ingalls Wilder, likely didn’t go blind from scarlet fever, say a team of American researchers.

A more likely cause is meningoencephalitis, writes senior author Dr. Beth A. Tarini in findings published in the journal Pediatrics on Feb. 4.

The team made the discovery by piecing together newspaper reports, school registries and unpublished writings from Ingalls Wilder, which included memoirs and letters.

In these documents, Tarini and her team found evidence that suggested that Mary Ingalls likely had some kind of a stroke, with a newspaper report saying that she was confined to bed with “spinal sickness” and paralysis on one side of her face.

“Meningoencephalitis could explain Mary’s symptoms, including the inflammation of the facial nerve that left the side of her face temporarily paralyzed,” Tarini says in a release, “and it could also lead to inflammation of the optic nerve that would result in a slow and progressive loss of sight.”

So, why would Ingalls Wilder make up scarlet fever as the cause of her sister’s blindness? Scarlet fever was a very real, and often deadly, childhood disease at the time Ingalls Wilder was writing, and one of the paper’s authors thinks that maybe Ingalls Wilder and her editor chose scarlet fever because young readers would be able to relate to it more easily.

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