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An analysis of historical documents, biographical records and other material suggests another disease that causes swelling in the brain and upper spinal cord was the most likely culprit.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Wilder’s letters and unpublished memoir, on which the books are based, suggest she was uncertain about her sister’s illness, referring to it as “some sort of spinal sickness.”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

    SAN FRANCISCO — FedEx Corp., the latest company accused in a federal probe involving illegal online pharmacies, says it will fight the charges that it knowingly shipped drugs to people who lack valid prescriptions....

    July 27, 2014

  • EU, U.S. seek to curb Putin’s Ukraine course

    BRUSSELS — Months after Russia annexed Crimea and stepped up support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, Europe and the United States are still searching for a way to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to change course....

    July 27, 2014

  • Fighting intense near crash

    DONETSK, Ukraine — Ukrainian armed forces mounted a major onslaught against pro-Russian separatist fighters Sunday in an attempt to gain control over the area where a Malaysia Airlines plane was downed earlier this month....

    July 27, 2014

  • Gaza war rages despite truce pledges

    GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel and Hamas launched new attacks Sunday in the raging Gaza war, despite going back and forth over proposals for a temporary halt to nearly three weeks of fighting ahead of a major Muslim holiday....

    July 27, 2014

  • Hamas fires rockets on Israel, ending 12-hour lull

    BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip — Hamas said it fired five rockets at Israel late Saturday after rejecting Israel’s offer to extend a 12-hour humanitarian cease-fire by four hours, casting new doubt on international efforts to broker an end to 19 ...

    July 27, 2014

  • Death shows Ebola can spread through air travel

    ABUJA, Nigeria — Nigerian health authorities raced to stop the spread of Ebola on Saturday after a man sick with one of the world’s deadliest diseases brought it by plane to Lagos, Africa’s largest city with 21 million people. The fact ...

    July 27, 2014

  • Police ID kids killed in Philly carjacking crash

    PHILADELPHIA — Two carjackers who fled after ramming a stolen SUV into a family selling fruit for their church, killing three young siblings, were still on the run Saturday as the reward for their capture topped $100,000. The children’s ...

    July 27, 2014

  • U.S.: Russia firing across border

    KIEV, Ukraine — Russia is launching artillery attacks from its soil on Ukrainian troops and preparing to move heavier weaponry across the border, the U.S. and Ukraine charged Friday in what appeared to be an ominous escalation of the ...

    July 26, 2014

  • Small holes cause big jitters

    SEOUL, South Korea — For the developers of the world’s sixth tallest building near Seoul, a mysteriously shrinking lake and the appearance of small sinkholes in residential neighborhoods couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time. ...

    July 26, 2014

  • Secret photo victims must describe trauma for case

    BALTIMORE — Thousands of women whose genitals might have been photographed during gynecological exams can share a $190 million settlement from Johns Hopkins Health System. But they’ll have to describe their trauma before seeing any money. ...

    July 26, 2014