Mary Ingalls' Blindness From Brain Infection, Suggests Study

Tuesday, 05 Feb 2013 05:18 PM

By Michael Mullins

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"Little House on the Prairie" mainstay Mary Ingalls' blindness was caused by an undiagnosed brain infection, not scarlet fever as previously thought, suggests a new study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Mary Ingalls is the sister of famed author Laura Ingalls Wilder who wrote the novel which spawned a children's "Little House" collection and a long-running television series starring Melissa Gilbert and Michael Landon. Melissa Sue Anderson played Mary on the show.

In the story, based on what Laura thought her sister was inflicted with, Mary goes blind at the age of 14 from scarlet fever.

After studying newspaper reports and Laura Wilder's memoirs and letters, the study's authors posited in the article published on Monday that Mary instead suffered from viral meningoencephalitis, an inflammation of the brain and central nervous system.

The study also claims that Mary's illness in the book series was altered by editors, who changed it to scarlet fever so that readers could comprehend it, considering the infectious disease was rampant at the time of Wilder's publication in the 19th century.

Dr. Beth Tarini, an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, led the study.

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

In her memoirs, Laura Wilder wrote that her sister suffered from pains in her head, high fevers, and eventually delirium, Tarini said.

Laura Wilder diagnosed Mary's ailment as a "spinal sickness" initially, calling it meningitis before ruling it out.

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

Despite only being out for 24 hours ago, the study attracted critics who were already dismissing Tarini's claims.

Dr. Bruce Hirsch, an infectious disease specialist at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., agrees that Mary wasn't afflicted with scarlet fever but is doubtful that meningoencephalitis was responsible for her blindness.

"If meningoencephalitis caused enough nerve damage to blind you, it would be unusual for it to just hit that part of the brain without causing a more general injury," Hirsch said in an interview with

Hirsch instead believes the blindness was caused by a viral sickness, coupled with a high fever.

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