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February 16, 2013

How did ‘Little House’ sister really become blind?

CHICAGO — Any fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved “Little House” books knows how the author’s sister Mary went blind: scarlet fever. But turns out that probably wasn’t the cause, medical experts say, upending one of the more dramatic elements in the classic stories.

An analysis of historical documents, biographical records and other material suggests another disease that causes swelling in the brain and upper spinal cord was the most likely culprit. It was known as “brain fever” in the late 1800s, the setting for the mostly true stories about Wilder’s pioneer family.

Scarlet fever was rampant and feared at the time, and it was likely often misdiagnosed for other illnesses that cause fever, the researchers said.

Wilder’s letters and unpublished memoir, on which the books are based, suggest she was uncertain about her sister’s illness, referring to it as “some sort of spinal sickness.” And a registry at an Iowa college for blind students that Mary attended says “brain fever” caused her to lose her eyesight, the researchers said.

They found no mention that Mary Ingalls had a red rash that is a hallmark sign of scarlet fever. It’s caused by the same germ that causes strep throat. It is easily treated with antibiotics that didn’t exist in the 1800s and is no longer considered a serious illness.

Doctors used to think blindness was among the complications, but that’s probably because they misdiagnosed scarlet fever in children who had other diseases, said study author Dr. Beth Tarini, a pediatrician and researcher at the University of Michigan.

Her study appears online Monday in Pediatrics.

It’s the latest study offering a modern diagnosis for a historical figure. Others subjected to revisionists’ microscope include Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, composer Wolfgang Mozart and Abraham Lincoln.

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