Did Scarlet Fever make Mary Ingalls go blind?

I have to admit right up front that I’ve never read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. But evidently, a lot of you did. Further, it seems that a lot of you learned from the books that scarlet fever took Mary Ingall’s sight, leaving her blind.

Thank goodness Beth Tarini is on the case:

Millions who have read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books are familiar with the trials and tribulations of Laura’s blind sister Mary. In By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura attributes Mary’s blindness to scarlet fever: “Mary and Carrie and baby Grace and Ma had all had scarlet fever. Far worst of all, the fever had settled in Mary’s eyes and Mary was blind.” (p 1).

Herein, we examine the plausibility of scarlet fever as the cause of Mary Ingalls’ blindness by systematically analyzing biographical documents, local newspapers, school registries, and epidemiologic data on blindness and infectious disease in the years when Mary and Laura Ingalls were children. We conclude that Mary’s blindness was probably caused not by scarlet fever but by viral meningoencephalitis.

Full disclosure: Beth is a very close friend and mentee, and she regularly gangs up with my wife to bludgeon me with the merits of U Michigan sports. When she told me about this paper, I was skeptical it would get published. I was wrong. It’s awesome, it’s fascinating, and it’s myth-busting at its best. You should all go read it.


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