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It wasn’t scarlet fever

February 9, 2013
By Cindy Votruba , Marshall Independent

This has been a week of interesting discoveries, from the skeletal remains of Richard the III being found in a parking lot to what actually caused Mary Ingalls' blindness. When I saw a story come across the Associated Press wire slugged "Little House, Scarlet Fever," I became intrigued.

Back when I read the books, I felt bad for Mary. She was still relatively young when she went blind and didn't get to experience as much as her sisters did. She seemed to be portrayed as a "fragile" character in Laura's books. Some of the illnesses Laura described in her books I wouldn't want to wish on anybody - the fever 'n ague (fever with severe chills and shaking, apparently being malaria), scarlet fever and the like.

An analysis of historical documents, biographical records and other material was released this week on how Mary probably went blind. It was referred to as "brain fever" back in the 1800s, which caused swelling in the brain and the upper spinal cord. Scarlet fever was a scary thing back in those times as well, and apparently it was frequently misdiagnosed for other illnesses. In Laura's unpublished memoir and letters, it says that she may have not known much about Mary's sickness. Mary went to attend the college for the blind in Vinton, Iowa, and records there say that "brain fever" caused her to go blind.

According to the article, it was thought that blindness was among the complications of scarlet fever, "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.

Tarini was a fan of the "Little House" books and wanted to study Mary's illness for quite a while. She was in a medical school discussion when she asked the question "can scarlet fever make you blind?" The instructor said that he didn't think so. And so began Tarini's research. It kind of reminded me of Rebecca Skloot's quest to find out about the woman behind the HeLa cells - Henrietta Lacks. She was persistent and ended up learning not only about the woman herself, but all the various ways the cells have been used in the last 60 years. By the way, Skloot's book is great, I highly recommend it.

Tarini figures that Mary Ingalls had meningoencephalitis (quite the mouthful, eh?), which can be caused by bacteria and treated with antibiotics. She said that Mary probably had the viral type, which can be spread by mosquitoes and ticks. And since Mary, Laura and the family spent a lot of time outside, I can see that happening. The disease is still common today and can cause fever, headaches and in some cases, seizures, according to Dr. Buddy Creech of Vanderbilt University. Blindness can happen if the disease affects the optic nerve.

It's cool to see how researchers are choosing these kind of topics to dig into. I wonder who or what will be next.



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