Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Little House books' Mary Ingalls probably did not go blind from scarlet fever, study says

Date:
February 4, 2013
Source:
University of Michigan Health System
Summary:
In the beloved American stories of the Little House on the Prairie, author Laura Ingalls Wilder writes emotionally about how scarlet fever robs her big sister Mary of her sight. But in a new study, researchers found it is likely scarlet fever had nothing to do with Mary's blindness.

In the beloved American stories of the Little House on the Prairie, author Laura Ingalls Wilder writes emotionally about how scarlet fever robs her big sister Mary of her sight.

But in a new study published today in the journal Pediatrics, University of Michigan researchers found it is likely scarlet fever had nothing to do with Mary's blindness.

Senior author Beth A. Tarini, M.D., and her co-authors used evidence from newspaper reports, Laura Ingalls' memories and school registries to conclude Mary's blindness was probably caused by viral meningoencephalitis.

"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 and knew that scarlet fever was once a deadly disease," says Tarini, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital.

"I would ask other doctors, but no one could give me a definitive answer, so I started researching it."

Mary Ingalls went blind in 1879 at age 14. Tarini and her co-authors found evidence in Laura Ingalls Wilder's memoirs and letters that described Mary's illness as "spinal sickness" with symptoms suggestive of a stroke.

The study quotes a local newspaper item that reports that Miss Mary Ingalls was confined to her bed and "it was feared that hemorrhage of the brain had set in (sic) one side of her face became partially paralyzed."

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

It's not surprising that scarlet fever was labeled the culprit in the books instead, Tarini says. Between 1840 and 1883, scarlet fever was one of the most common infectious causes of death among children in the United States.

"Laura's memoirs were transformed into the Little House novels. Perhaps to make the story more understandable to children, the editors may have revised her writings to identify scarlet fever as Mary's illness because it was so familiar to people and so many knew how frightening a scarlet fever diagnosis was," says Sarah S. Allexan, B.A., lead author of the paper and a medical student at the University of Colorado.

For reasons that remain unclear, scarlet fever case fatality rates fell dramatically in the early 20th century, well before antibiotic treatment.

But even now, a scarlet fever diagnosis can strike fear into the heart of parents Tarini sees in her pediatric practice.

"Familiar literary references like these are powerful -- especially when there is some historical truth to them." Tarini says. "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."

Additional authors: Carrie L. Byington, M.D of the University of Utah.; Jerome I. Finkelstein, M.D., F.A.C.S., assistant professor of Opthalmology and Visual Sciences at the University of Michigan.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Michigan Health System. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. S. S. Allexan, C. L. Byington, J. I. Finkelstein, B. A. Tarini. Blindness in Walnut Grove: How Did Mary Ingalls Lose Her Sight? Pediatrics, 2013; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2012-1438

Cite This Page:

University of Michigan Health System. "Little House books' Mary Ingalls probably did not go blind from scarlet fever, study says." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 February 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130204114258.htm>.
University of Michigan Health System. (2013, February 4). Little House books' Mary Ingalls probably did not go blind from scarlet fever, study says. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 24, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130204114258.htm
University of Michigan Health System. "Little House books' Mary Ingalls probably did not go blind from scarlet fever, study says." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130204114258.htm (accessed September 24, 2014).

Share This



More Health & Medicine News

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Ebola Costs Keep Mounting

Ebola Costs Keep Mounting

Reuters - Business Video Online (Sep. 23, 2014) The WHO has warned up to 20,000 people could be infected with Ebola over the next few weeks. As Sonia Legg reports, the implications for the West African countries suffering from the disease are huge. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Ebola Cases Could Reach 1.4 Million Within 4 Months

Ebola Cases Could Reach 1.4 Million Within 4 Months

Newsy (Sep. 23, 2014) Health officials warn that without further intervention, the number of Ebola cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone could reach 1.4 million by January. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
WHO: Ebola Cases to Triple in Weeks Without Drastic Action

WHO: Ebola Cases to Triple in Weeks Without Drastic Action

AFP (Sep. 23, 2014) The number of Ebola infections will triple to 20,000 by November, soaring by thousands every week if efforts to stop the outbreak are not stepped up radically, the WHO warned in a study on Tuesday. Duration: 01:01 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
5 Ways Men Can Prevent Most Heart Attacks

5 Ways Men Can Prevent Most Heart Attacks

Newsy (Sep. 23, 2014) No surprise here: A recent study says men can reduce their risk of heart attack by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which includes daily exercise. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Health & Medicine

Mind & Brain

Living & Well

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins