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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

No Scarlet Fever at The Little House on the Prairie

Posted by Alana T.

The news organizations have recently been publicizing the new diagnosis for Mary Ingalls' blindness.  Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace were the sisters made famous in the Little House on the Prairie series written by Laura.  In the books, we learn that Mary went blind at 14 due to scarlet fever.

A medical school student, Sarah Allexan, and a Professor of Pediatrics, Beth Tarini, both at the University of Michigan took an interest in the story and took another look at historical data.  They analyzed accounts of Mary's illness, newspaper articles from the area, school registries, and epidemiological data on blindness and infectious disease in the late 19th century.  The researchers came to the conclusion that meningoencephalitis, and infection of the membranes around the brain, could explain the suite of Mary's symptoms and cause her blindness.  In fact, there is some evidence that Laura knew that Mary had a spinal infection (the illness was described in By the Shores of Silver Lake), but later changed the story in other books to scarlet fever.  Why would she change the story?  We'll never know, but scarlet fever was a well known disease with a bad reputation and it shows up in other stories from and about that era (i.e. The Velveteen Rabbit,  Frankenstein, Little Women).

The research is described in the journal Pediatrics (requires a subscription to view the article) and summarized in newspapers.

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