Parenting • Feb 11, 2013

Sickness on the Prairie: What Really Made Mary Ingalls go Blind?

Remember how Mary Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie went blind, supposedly from scarlet fever?  Medical historians have just published that Mary probably didn’t go blind from scarlet fever, as suggested in the Little House novels written by her sister, Laura Ingalls Wilder.  The blond-haired blue-eyed elder sister of Laura probably went blind from meningoencephalitis, as evidenced by research published this week in the Journal Pediatrics. The authors use evidence from newspaper reports of Mary’s illness, first-hand accounts of Mary’s illness in Laura Ingalls’ memoirs, as well as school registries and epidemiologic data.

mary-ingalls-3_4_r536_c534Laura Ingalls Wilder does a beautiful job illustrating the disease burden suffered by pioneer Americans.  She describes Mary’s illness in her unpublished memoirs:

“One morning when I looked at her I saw one side of her face drawn out of shape. Ma said Mary had had a stroke […] After the stroke Mary began to get better, but she could not see well…As Mary grew stronger her eyes grew weaker until when she could sit up in the big chair among the pillows, she could hardly see at all.”

Various physicians examined Mary Ingalls and proposed several causes of her illness.  But Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family remained confused as to the true cause of Mary’s blindness.

How soon we forget how much suffering Americans endured due to illness, even only one or two generation ago.  No one knows for sure, but the meningoencephalitis that Mary Ingalls suffered may be preventable today by vaccination.  There are many reasons for the growing American trend to avoid or delay childhood vaccination, and they have been discussed thoroughly by my colleagues.  But I think Americans would be more cautious about declining vaccines if we had a better memory of the childhood disease and death that our country suffered not long ago.

Dr. Mary Tillman is a pediatrician in St. Louis who recently retired after more than 50 years of practice.  As Dr. Tillman studied pediatrics in medical school, she figured out which diseases had killed each of her childhood friends.  She saw the serious complications of otherwise mild illnesses like measles, mumps, and chickenpox.  She cared for boys with sterility from mumps and watched children die from pneumonia caused by the chickenpox virus.  She saw death from pneumococcal pneumonia and meningitis, diseases I rarely see due to vaccination.  And she is only about 45 years older than me.  How quickly we forget.

Death due to vaccine-preventable illnesses is back, even here in St. Louis.  Pertussis, or whooping cough, can cause severe lung infection and death, especially in young infants.  Pertussis cases in the United States hit a ten-year peak in 2010 at 27,550 diagnoses.  In 2011, cases fell to 18,719.  Measles, also, is present in the United States, with 222 reported cases in 2011.  Although most people recover from measles uneventfully, measles can have severe complications including meningitis and death.  The primary reason we vaccinate is for prevention of these severe complications.

The Little House stories have captured all of our hearts because of the simple joys that the Ingalls family found despite a life of many hardships.  So when we watch Mary and Laura Ingalls running through grassy fields with their hands outstretched, let’s not forget the disease burden they suffered, and make our own prudent efforts to protect ourselves and our children.