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Worst of all, the fever had settled in Mary's eyes and Mary was blind.
February 4, 2013 12:13 PM   Subscribe

“When I’m in clinic,” Dr. Tarini said, “and I tell parents their child has scarlet fever, I see their eyes widen. In my mind, it’s no different than a strep throat with a rash, but the specter of history colors their reaction.” Those emotional words describing Mary’s lost vision still carry weight with the parents who read and remember “By the Shores of Silver Lake” and all the books that came before and after it.
But it turns out Mary Ingalls probably didn't have Scarlet Fever after all.

- Original article, behind paywall, in the journal Pediatrics.
- Article about Vinton School for the Blind in Iowa, where Mary attended
posted by ChuraChura (45 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
I knew Doc Baker was an overcharging hack...
posted by Capt. Renault at 12:22 PM on February 4, 2013 [8 favorites]


Yup, same thing happened to Helen Keller. The only diagnosis they had at the time was "brain fever," and then later they thought it was scarlet fever, and now they say it was probably meningitis.

Also reported here.
posted by Melismata at 12:23 PM on February 4, 2013


A similar story.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:25 PM on February 4, 2013


I grew up embedded in this folklore. I was born and raised in De Smet, SD. My mom was born on the quarter of land directly west of the homestead 'on the shores of silver lake'. The Surveyors' House they lived in is all of 2 blocks from my parent's house. I often played in the park build in the lot next to it.

I was in the pageant http://www.desmetpageant.org/ for many years, and my dad played Pa for over a decade.

Of course my Mom read me the books a few pages at a time as bedtime stories when I was a child.

To this day when the wind is blowing 50 MPH and the temperature is -30 and there is 3 feet snow and you can't see 5 feet... I don't know how they did it.
posted by killThisKid at 12:27 PM on February 4, 2013 [47 favorites]


When I was a kid I thought Melissa Sue Anderson (who played Mary in the television series) was so pretty and had such amazingly blue eyes. I remember the episode where she went completely blind. So sad...only slightly less traumatizing than the mime rape storyline.
posted by ghost dance beat at 12:27 PM on February 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


I found it odd that the article speculates about why they chose to attribute the blindness to scarlet fever rather than meningoencephalitis but doesn't ask if this was a choice or simply misdiagnosis. Was meningoencephalitis even known at the time?

Perhaps they have some actual documentation of a non-Scarlet Fever diagnosis, but if so it would have been good to mention it.
posted by yoink at 12:28 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


*bows humbly to killThisKid* Bite your tongue, Ideefixe. Some of us can quote entire paragraphs from the biography of Laura's daughter Rose.
posted by Melismata at 12:29 PM on February 4, 2013


If she did have scarlet fever, she would have been more likely to end up with rheumatic heart disease (this is why treating strep throat is important, not because treatment reduces the severity or duration of symptoms). Although, as my first link mentioned, meningitis can also be a complication of scarlet fever, leading to complications such as blindness and deafness.
posted by TedW at 12:30 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


only slightly less traumatizing than the mime rape storyline.

Previously on metafilter....
posted by tzikeh at 12:32 PM on February 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


This is interesting. My aunt (my mother's younger sister, who would have been born in the early 30s) was blind in one eye.

The story went that it was because "she had whooping cough as a child and refused to cough". But I was reading the Ingalls novels at the time and became convinced that she must have had scarlet fever and had been misdiagnosed.
posted by trip and a half at 12:56 PM on February 4, 2013


My mother and sister both got scarlet fever when I was young -- I think I missed out -- so when I got around to reading the books, or maybe it was watching the TV show with that same sister, I was already secure in the knowledge that it was just something people got, even though I've actually never heard of anyone else getting it.
posted by jeather at 1:01 PM on February 4, 2013


I'm not surprised she was mis-diagnosed, considering "fever 'n' ague" (fever with severe chills and shaking) was believed by some to have come from eating bad Watermelon.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:19 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure what MeFi rules are for this, but anyway, here's the paywalled original article in full.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:23 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I'm not sure what MeFi rules are for this"

If this link does not remain, please feel free to memail me with an email address I can send a PDF to and a promise to not distribute it further - for the purposes of this academic discussion we are having of course.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:27 PM on February 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


Ayup, memail Blasdelb or me if you are of the opinion that academic freedom should not mean being free of 35 bucks.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:56 PM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Intellectual freedom, huzzah!
posted by littleap71 at 2:30 PM on February 4, 2013


I was obsessed with the Little House books and TV show as a kid, and I was always curious about Mary's illness, because I also had scarlet fever when I was around 5 or 6. I always assumed I didn't go blind because of modern medicine (and because I was too busy puking my guts out).
posted by DiscourseMarker at 2:59 PM on February 4, 2013


Was meningoencephalitis even known at the time?

The term is a catch-all for a family of infections with both bacterial and viral causes, so it's more a matter of the specific cause not having been identified. The paper also notes that her doctors thought a prior case of measles could have been to blame, but if it were still infecting her two years on, she would have progressed to death rather than living into her sixties. I think a general lack of depth of epidemiological knowledge is an appropriate factor to blame.
posted by dhartung at 3:07 PM on February 4, 2013


I tell parents their child has scarlet fever, I see their eyes widen.

Boy, no kidding. We had a kid that was diagnosed with scarlet fever and my first two thoughts were:

1) BLIND!
2) Wait. Scarlet fever still exists??
posted by DU at 3:19 PM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


I remember reading a biography of Laura many years ago, and it included the information that it was probably not scarlet fever -- but I think it might have said the cause was a stroke, which is also dismissed here. Interesting medical detective work.
posted by OolooKitty at 3:25 PM on February 4, 2013


Yes I read these books but I think I also grew up knowing my brother had scarlet fever as a baby and obviously he turned out ok....ps thanks for bringing back a lot of good memories with those books. Christmas with oranges and visitors appearing, smoked cracklings, snow drifts, houses in grass banks....loved them.
posted by bquarters at 3:31 PM on February 4, 2013


When we were little my sister wound up with Scarlet Fever. The months of her recovery (she was very young - 2 or 3 - and in poor health to begin with), I worried that she would become blind. And my sister's name is Mary too, which meant that she was DOUBLY at risk for going blind.

Luckily none of that happened. I think my greatest (secret) fear would be that I'd have to "be Mary's eyes now", like Laura was in the books. Even as a baby my sister was kind of a brat. I didn't want to have to spend all my time with her, describing the world. Bleh. I'm much nicer now.
posted by Elly Vortex at 3:41 PM on February 4, 2013 [12 favorites]


I had scarlet fever in 2006; interestingly, the doctor that treated me did not raise even the potential threat of vision loss. Rheumatic fever was far and away his concern.
posted by spaltavian at 4:21 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I read these books when I was a kid, back in the 1950s. the first one was the very first full length or chapter book that I read all by myself at the age of six. My own kids, all boys, were never interested.

A few years ago I discovered, to my dismay, that Rose, Laura's daughter, was one of Ayn Rand's associates, and both are considered founding mothers of libertarianism.
posted by mareli at 4:37 PM on February 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


Even as a baby my sister was kind of a brat.

So was Mary Ingalls, at least she sure reads that way. Remember the scene where she carefully licks her candy and then saves it for the next day? Ugh.
posted by DU at 4:40 PM on February 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


This is like when I found out that my grampappy didn't die of "consumption" but was eaten by a grue. First link made me cry a little and feel like a privileged little punk and the second one was fascinating but unsurprising.  Seems kind of like a "well actually" style correction but it's good to know and not panic needlessly about going blind, when we all know that onanism is responsible. 
posted by lordaych at 4:54 PM on February 4, 2013


My mother died at 42, and my aunt at 62, partly because their hearts were fucked up badly by childhood scarlet fever. Fuck you, scarlet fever.

And by their years of smoking, which HELLO! MUM! WHY?!? Of course they started smoking back in the "more doctors choose Chesterfields" and "reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet" years, so fuck you, too, US tobacco industry.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:11 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thank you so much for finding this! I was always a fan of the Little House universe and the sisters' real stories alongside their serialized ones.
posted by kimberussell at 5:12 PM on February 4, 2013


I remember reading a biography of Laura many years ago, and it included the information that it was probably not scarlet fever -- but I think it might have said the cause was a stroke, which is also dismissed here. Interesting medical detective work.

Apparently that's what Lauru says in the original (unpublished, but known "Pioneer Girl") version which was more of a diary and less of a kids story.
posted by jacalata at 5:57 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


A young doctor recently told me that treating strep with antibiotics was falling out of fashion because rheumatic fever is so uncommon now. Here's an article with details.
posted by purpleclover at 7:15 PM on February 4, 2013


Boy, no kidding. We had a kid that was diagnosed with scarlet fever and my first two thoughts were:

1) BLIND!
2) Wait. Scarlet fever still exists??


I didn't remember that Mary's blindness was blamed on scarlet fever, but having grown up reading Little Women over and over, my first thought when my kid was diagnosed was "BETH!" The second thought was the same.
posted by Dojie at 7:54 PM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


My wife is a big fan and I remember her mentioning this years ago. When I mentioned this article to her, she said that every one already knows it wasn't Scarlet fever. Many biographies mention that it couldn't be scarlet fever. Some sources said they really blamed it on brain fever, which is a catch all for many illnesses. Some mention complications of measles. In Laura's own words in "Laura" by David zochert, she said "the doctors had a long name for her illness"
posted by recursion at 7:55 PM on February 4, 2013


Supposedly "pioneer girl" (Laura's autobiography) has some more info on this and is supposed to be published this spring.
posted by recursion at 7:57 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was also completely freaked out when i realized that Scarlet Fever really wasn't some rare horrible disease, but was just a slightly different appearance of the unpleasant but no-big-deal strep infection that I had almost annually throughout my childhood until my tonsils were removed. That was a real eye-opener about the amazing difference antibiotics have made in human development. Other than being prone to infection in my tonsils, I was a really healthy kid - but I would have died many times over if I had been born a hundred years earlier. But evidently with perfect vision up until the end.
posted by Dojie at 8:02 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Mareli, I also was a little appalled to hear about Rose WIlder Lane's political leanings, and then to recognize some of these leanings in the books (the biggest thing for me is the portrayal of the Ingalls family as self-sufficient and always-having-at-least-enough just because they worked hard and earned it, whereas the truth is that they worked damn hard and that really wasn't good enough and they ended up skipping out on the rent in the dead of night, etc etc).

However, I have come to recognize that the Little House books are the ultimate fantasy of life turning out well if you just do the 'right thing', and fantasies are nice when you are young, but then you grow up and realize that hard work isn't always enough and there's nothing wrong with that.

And also realize that watermelon and scarlet fever aren't as dangerous as the books make them out to be...
posted by Tandem Affinity at 8:12 PM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Here is a fascinating take on the Little House books (source):
The thing that the Little House fans don’t seem to understand – and I don’t see how any adult reader can miss it – is that the books are a chronicle of failure. The Ingalls family has a pretty good life in the Wisconsin woods, living and prospering as farmers with close-by relatives and friends. There’s no reason for them to leave other than that Pa is a loner who wants to get away from other people. He forces his wife, who has a horror of being raped and murdered by Indians, to move to the Osage reservation in Kansas in the expectation that it will be opened to white settlement. (Ma is a sexual neurotic, forcing her pre-pubescent daughters to sleep in corsets.) He’s wrong about the reservation, so the family loses the year’s work they’ve put into that land and moves to Minnesota, where they lose their crop to locusts and Pa becomes a hobo looking for work as a hired man. As they move from place to place, failure follows them. They almost die of malaria. One daughter goes blind. They never have enough to eat. And so on. Eventually they wind up in De Smet, South Dakota, a railroad town, where they nearly starve to death during the “long winter.” Pa fails as a farmer and becomes a carpenter, building houses for the townspeople brought by the railroad. At age 15, Laura is forced to go to work as a school teacher, where she boards with a violent man and his terrorized wife. At 18 she marries Almanzo, a man ten years her senior, and gets out from under her parents’ control. And that’s the end of the series.

But her actual pioneer life after the end of the series is no better. Almanzo comes down with diphtheria, which almost kills him and leaves him partially crippled for the rest of his life. Their infant son dies, their barn burns down, and drought drives them off Almanzo’s land. When Laura is 27, they move to Missouri and try to make a living as farmers. That fails as well, and they rent a house in town, where Almanzo works as a delivery man and Laura takes in boarders. They’re slated for a life of poverty and drudgery until Almanzo’s parents buy them the house they live in, and they eventually sell it and use the money to make a go of their farm.

So the great pioneering heroine of American children’s literature winds up living in Missouri, dependent on the financial help of her in-laws from upstate New York.

The deprivation of Laura’s childhood comes through most powerfully in her book about Almanzo’s childhood, Farmer Boy, which is filled with descriptions of bountiful food: hams, sausages, pies, cakes, bread, butter, jam, milk, eggs, cheese and coffee. It’s like a starving person’s vision of heaven.

Pa and Ma had no descendants. Mary never married and had no children. Laura’s son died and her daughter, Rose, never married and had no children. Carrie and Grace both married (Carrie died in her 70′s, Grace in her 60′s) but neither one had children. The Ingalls family line is a dead end.

It’s impossible, reading as an adult, to come to any conclusion other than that Pa and his family should have stayed in Wisconsin, and Almanzo would have been better off as a farmer up around the Finger Lakes.
posted by chinston at 9:33 PM on February 4, 2013 [34 favorites]


I had a severe case of scarlet fever when I was three, in Germany; it took massive doses of some then-new antibiotic to finally cure me. I have no recollection of my folks being worried about my going blind (I'm myopic anyway, but that's hereditary from my mom), as they never mentioned it later, but it did damage both my eardrums (surgically fixed later in life) and my teeth, the latter enough so that I couldn't get braces like my brothers, a few years later, too fragile. There's some lack of clarity as to whether the damage was just from the sustained high fever, or a side effect of the antibiotics, or from the virus itself, or some combo of those or all of the above. My having been a preemie, underweight starting out, and frequently sick before getting scarlet fever, probably made it a bigger deal for my immune system than it is for a lot of people.
posted by Philofacts at 10:46 PM on February 4, 2013


you grow up and realize that hard work isn't always enough and there's nothing wrong with that

Isn't this pretty much the theme of The First Four Years, the book that comes after These Happy Golden Years in the series?

I'm not sure if that one was maybe not edited by Rose, or the publishers felt that since it wasn't really a children's story they could avoid faking a happy ending, or what. But if I recall correctly, that last book is full of poverty, with a side of infant mortality, debilitating disease, and a house fire that claimed almost everything the young family owned. It's rough enough to make a case for nihilism, especially in comparison to the other books.

The worst part is that the premise is that the Wilders will spend four years taking a stab at farming, and if things don't work out, they'll do something else. Things don't work out, but the answer is basically, "but we decided to stay farmers anyway, because Reasons."
posted by Sara C. at 12:13 AM on February 5, 2013


I was also completely freaked out when i realized that Scarlet Fever really wasn't some rare horrible disease, but was just a slightly different appearance of the unpleasant but no-big-deal strep infection that I had almost annually throughout my childhood until my tonsils were removed. That was a real eye-opener about the amazing difference antibiotics have made in human development.

I heard yesterday from someone whose youngest child has scarlet fever that isn't responding to antibiotics. A resistant strain was seen in Hong Kong in 2011; I wonder if it's found its way to the UK.
posted by rory at 3:19 AM on February 5, 2013


The thing that the Little House fans don’t seem to understand – and I don’t see how any adult reader can miss it – is that the books are a chronicle of failure.

And those were the good stories!

I read somewhere that Laura didn't publish the stories of the really bad times, because she wanted to show young people that you could persevere through most anything. There were two years skipped over in the books that were later written up by another author, and there were other stories that were included in her personal writings and earlier drafts of the published books that were left out to keep things from being too bleak.

If you want to know more on how the books came to be, The New Yorker has a good write-up on how Rose was influential in Laura's writing, which adds another layer of sadness to the stories.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:12 AM on February 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Almanzo would have been better off as a farmer up around the Finger Lakes

There was plenty of failure on the Wilder side, too; due to repeated crop failures (not sure why), they left upstate New York and moved to Minnesota. Sister Alice died young, around age 40 of cancer I think. Sister Laura was widowed young and lived in De Smet with either Laura or Eliza Jane for a time. Eliza Jane tried homesteading on her own, and failed. She married a man, moved to Louisiana, and convinced her father to move down there and invest his entire fortune in land there. The venture failed, and he lost all his money shortly before he died.

THEN, Eliza's husband died and due to laws at the time, she was not entitled to any of her husband's assets acquired before the marriage, which was pretty much everything since he had been semi-retired when they married. His children were not generous, and she was back living in poverty again.

Getting back to the Ingalls side; Grace had a hard life, they were on welfare for many years due to her husband's illnesses and inability to farm. The Great Depression didn't help. Carrie seems to have done all right, homesteading on her own near Mt. Rushmore and then marrying. She raised two young stepchildren, and I think managed her husband's affairs after he died. There really, REALLY needs to be a good biography of Carrie.
posted by Melismata at 7:43 AM on February 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Carrie was also a pioneering woman journalist out in Keystone. I agree, a Carrie bio is overdue.
posted by padraigin at 7:57 AM on February 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, and to correct the quote above: Rose did marry, and had one baby that was either stillborn or died shortly after birth. Like her mother, the ordeal probably ended her ability to have children. She divorced her husband after 9 years, because among other things she couldn't imagine being so tied down for the rest of her life. (She definitely had Pa's wandering spirit, if not his love for the land.)
posted by Melismata at 8:00 AM on February 5, 2013


The thing that the Little House fans don’t seem to understand – and I don’t see how any adult reader can miss it – is that the books are a chronicle of failure.

Or a chronicle of perseverance. They almost die of malaria, but don't. They survived the Long Winter. Mary went blind but continued living and learning. The family pulled together to send her to school. All their business/farming ventures failed, but they kept trying something new. Laura's first teaching job stunk, but she got another one that was better and closer to home. Even as a kid I knew their life stunk out loud.

Cripes, don't even get me started on the TV show that I adored as a child (I wore a sunbonnet while I watched it) but something bad happened every single week.

The First Four Years remains a ridiculously dark book for me to read, even as an adult.
posted by kimberussell at 9:54 AM on February 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Louise Erdrich's Birchbark series talks about the same historic period/general area from the point of view of a young Ojibwe girl. I give those books to all my Little House-reading young friends, because they're awesome books and they give another important perspective.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:09 PM on February 5, 2013 [9 favorites]


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