Forget scarlet fever: What really blinded Mary Ingalls

Anybody who has spent much time with children's literature knows that scarlet fever blinded Mary Ingalls.

But scarlet fever doesn't cause blindness.

Mary really did become blind, though, in real life as well as in the books, so what was the real culprit? A paper published this week in the journal Pediatrics speculates that it could have been viral meningoencephalitis — inflammation in the brain and in the membranes that surround the central nervous system.

There are several possible causes. In Europe and Asia, ticks can spread a virus that causes meningoencephalitis. West Nile virus can cause it, as well. So can the mumps. And so can herpes simplex type 1 — the oral herpes virus that is present in the vast majority of people.

Which means that this story not only has ties to the other Little House history pieces we've run here at Boing Boing — the meteorology of the Long Winter, and the crazy connection between the Ingalls' and a family of serial killers — it's also, possibly, another example of a heroine from children's fiction who had herpes.

The full paper, sadly, is behind a paywall. But The New York Times' Motherlode blog has a nice summary of it.

Image: Wikipedia editor Lrcg2012, via CC


  1. Hrm. Looking at that pic, two-sided Braille printers must be calibrated pretty tightly to prevent overprinting of the dots.

    1. Likely cost several thousand dollars.

      Never liked how expensive braille is. Sure it’s far more mechanical than traditional print but it’s always struck me as price gouging in a market that can’t really afford to have more barriers put up.

  2. Am I remembering correctly that Mary’s illness and becoming blind basically happened in between the events of two books? She’s okay at the end of one book, then she’s blind from the start of the next. Seems like a missed opportunity to dramatize her illness.

    1.  I think you are right about her illness coming between books. But have you considered that maybe Laura (and daughter Rose, who co-wrote) in fact chose NOT to dramatize Mary’s illness? It was a different time. In the book Mary is a hero for her actions before her disability, not after.

      1. I’m not sure what you mean about Mary being a hero “before her disability”, and why that would preclude showing her illness and transition to blindness in more detail. There might have been several reasons why Laura or Rose decided to skip that section, as they skipped some other segments of Laura’s actual childhood, or re-arranged elements.

        Maybe the publisher or author(s) felt it would frighten young children, but they already show the family threatened by Indians, all of them nearly dying of malaria or whatever, plus that relentless horror novel The Long Winter.

        Oh well. There’s lots of good stuff in there anyway.

  3. When I was a young ‘un Kenny Rogers released a song titled Scarlet Fever. You know: “Now I get scarlet feeeverrr every time I seee her.” Etc.

    I knew it was supposed to be a play on the lady’s name, but whenever I heard the song I thought of a bright red tongue and a rash. Which–being the sort of kid I was–immediately reminded me of Monty Python’s Medical Love Song.

    tl;dr: Kenny Rogers’ romantic metaphor reminded me of syphilis.

  4. Actually Scarlet Fever can lead to Bacterial Meningitis which can cause blindness.  So it could have been the result of the Scarlett Fever.  Although if it was it is pretty amazing she lived through the Meningitis.

    1. You might be right. I had a strep throat turn into meningitis and it’s the same bacteria right? So that could happen. I think the odds of surviving bacterial meningitis without antibiotics are close enough to 0% though.  

  5. TOTALLY ANECTDOTAL:  In second grade (~1964) I myself contracted scarlet fever.  Can’t completely remember but, I think I was out (as in, not completely conscious) for a couple of days, with VERY high fever.  Eventually, went back to school and my grades TANKED immediately.  After weeks of harassment by the nuns, my parents finally took me to an eye doctor who discovered that my eyesight had gotten bad, quickly, and when informed of my illness, claimed that my retinas had been “warped” from the prolonged high fever.–basically, I couldn’t see the chalkboards so I couldn’t learn…  As noted, anectdotal, but is it such a stretch to think that a child on the prairie without any real benefit of medicine could have had a visual impairment to be EQUATED with blindness?

Comments are closed.