Laura Ingalls' Sister May Not Have Lost Eyesight To Scarlet Fever

Audie Cornish talks with University of Michigan pediatrician Beth Tarini, who writes in the latest issue of the journal Pediatrics that Mary Ingalls, sister of author Laura Ingalls Wilder, likely did not go blind as a result of scarlet fever. Tarini talks about what led her to research Ingalls' illness, and how she learned more about what might have actually caused her blindness.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Since they were first published starting in the 1930s, the "Little House" books by Laura Ingalls Wilder have captured the imagination of generations of readers. The series brought to life a world of American pioneers, all their joys, trials and sorrows. One of the most haunting moments comes right at the beginning of the fifth book, "By the Shores of Silver Lake." Laura's big sister, Mary, has gone blind as a result of scarlet fever.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) Her beautiful golden hair was gone. Pa had shaved it close because of the fever, and her poor shorn head looked like a boy's. Her blue eyes were still beautiful, but they did not know what was before them, and Mary herself could never look through them again to tell Laura what she was thinking without saying a word.

CORNISH: Now, in a paper published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers question whether scarlet fever was in fact the cause of Mary's blindness. We're joined now by the senior author of that paper, pediatrician Beth Tarini of the University of Michigan. Hello there, Beth.

DR. BETH TARINI: Hello, Audie.

CORNISH: So your paper is out this week, and I understand you've been wondering about the medical science behind Mary's blindness for quite some time.

TARINI: Well, I was a fan of the books definitely as a child, and obviously, they stuck with me. I remember being in my pediatrics rotation as a medical student, and we were sitting around the table, my fellow students and I, and the supervising physician was talking to us about scarlet fever. And in the midst of the conversation, I raised my hand and said scarlet fever, that can make you go blind, right? And the professor stopped and paused, and she said, no, I don't think so.

And I, with such certainty, said, no, no, but Mary Ingalls went blind from scarlet fever. I'm certain of it. I remember the book. And you could see the professor pause again because she knew that Mary Ingalls had gone blind. She knew that Mary Ingalls was a real person, but from a medical perspective, couldn't put together why or how scarlet fever could make you go blind. I thought to myself, well, I'll figure out how in fact this could be.

CORNISH: How did you go about researching the medical condition? I mean, it's someone obviously who's famous to us today because of the "Little House" books but was just 14 years old back then.

TARINI: So I first started trolling the library, dusting off old medical books from the 1800s and the 1900s, and looking to see whether scarlet fever was different back then, whether it caused different complications. And what I found was that, while it occasionally was mentioned in the association with blindness, that that blindness was usually temporary. And then at the same time, I started looking into what were the first writings of Laura about her sister's illness, and that led me to "Pioneer Girl," which are the memoirs that Laura wrote upon which she based the later books.

CORNISH: So what did you learn about what exactly did happen to Mary?

TARINI: So by what we've found in the books and by what we found actually written in the register of the school that Mary attended as well as in the newspaper, interestingly enough, is that it was likely meningoencephalitis, an infection of the brain and the tissues surrounding the brain.

CORNISH: So, Beth, why do you think that Laura Ingalls did use scarlet fever?

TARINI: Well, I'm not certain whether it was Laura or the editors that used the scarlet fever association, but it is likely that whomever used it was probably using a literary device of some sort. Scarlet fever was very commonly used in other literary instances, for instance, in "Little Women." So this was a disease that many of the readers could relate to, both from their other childhood reading and from history.

CORNISH: Are you surprised at the power of this particular literary reference?

TARINI: I'm very surprised. What I was surprised about was the degree to which those stories permeate people's everyday life and their experiences. It has taught me an important lesson as a physician that, for instance, when I talk about scarlet fever, there's what scarlet fever means to me, and there's what scarlet fever means to the patient. And so it doesn't matter what I think scarlet fever means. It matters what the patient sees it as and what risks or dangers they see in a diagnosis of scarlet fever. And clearly here, this book has served to forge a memory and an association with millions of people that has lasted with them for decades of their life.

CORNISH: Beth Tarini, thank you so much for speaking with me. Good detective work.

TARINI: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Pediatrician Beth Tarini of the University of Michigan is the senior author of the paper "Blindness in Walnut Grove: How Did Mary Ingalls Lose Her Sight?" It appears in the latest issue of the journal Pediatrics.

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