The Norman Transcript

Nation/World

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An analysis of historical documents, biographical records and other material suggests another disease that causes swelling in the brain and upper spinal cord was the most likely culprit.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Wilder’s letters and unpublished memoir, on which the books are based, suggest she was uncertain about her sister’s illness, referring to it as “some sort of spinal sickness.”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.

Text Only | Photo Reprints
Nation/World
  • At mudslide scene, Obama mourns with survivors

    OSO, Wash. — Swooping over a landscape of unspeakable sadness and death, President Barack Obama took an aerial tour Tuesday of the place where more than three dozen people perished in a mudslide last month. He pledged a nation’s solidarity ...

    April 23, 2014

  • GM, lawyers fight over protections

    DETROIT — General Motors Co. and a battalion of trial lawyers are preparing for an epic court fight over whether GM is liable for the sins of its corporate past. The company is asking a U.S. bankruptcy court to shield it from legal claims ...

    April 23, 2014

  • Boston Marathon One year after tragedy, 32,000 run Boston Marathon

    BOSTON — Some ran to honor the dead and wounded. Others were out to prove something to the world about their sport, the city or their country. And some wanted to prove something to themselves....

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Festivities, tight security before race

    BOSTON — In many ways, it felt like any other pre-marathon Sunday in Boston....

    April 21, 2014

  • Boston race makes room for those affected by bombs

    BOSTON — “I need to run.” The messages started arriving just hours after the bombings, pleading for an entry into the 2014 Boston Marathon. For months the calls and emails continued, runners begging for an opportunity to cross the finish ...

    April 21, 2014

  • Documents detail another delayed GM recall for failed power steering

    DETROIT — General Motors waited years to recall nearly 335,000 Saturn Ions for power steering failures despite getting thousands of consumer complaints and more than 30,000 warranty repair claims, according to government documents released ...

    April 20, 2014

  • Landslide devouring part of Wyoming town

    JACKSON, Wyo. — A slow-motion disaster continued unfolding in the Wyoming resort town of Jackson on Saturday, as a creeping landslide that split a hillside home threatened to swallow up more houses and businesses. The ground beneath the ...

    April 20, 2014

  • Questions about missing Malaysian plane answered

    Travelers at Asian airports have asked questions about the March 8 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Here are some of them, followed by answers. Samuel Rogers is a 20-year-old ...

    April 20, 2014

  • NASA’s space station Robonaut finally getting legs

    CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs....

    April 20, 2014

  • Hostage French journalists in Syria freed

    PARIS — Four French journalists held hostage in Syria for 10 months have been released, officials said Saturday, the latest batch of reporters to be freed in what has become the world’s deadliest conflict for the media....

    April 20, 2014

Video
Facebook