February 8, 2013

Little House Books Wrongly Blame Scarlet Fever

A new study from the University of Michigan Health System found that Mary Ingalls from the Little House on the Prairie series possibly did not go blind from scarlet fever, but rather from viral meningoencephalitis; the researchers showcase how stories of the disease can impact individuals’ perspective of the illness.

To begin, the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder described her childhood in a pioneer family, as well as the dangerous and difficulties individuals faced living in the wild frontier. The researchers observed the depiction of scarlet fever by Laura Ingalls Wilder and how it eventually made her sister Mary become blind. In the study, they looked at newspaper reports, school registration, and the author’s memories to understand whether scarlet fever was the cause of Mary’s blindness. However, they discovered that viral meningoencephalitis was most likely to have been the cause of her sister’s illness as opposed to scarlet fever.

“Since I was in medical school, I had wondered about whether scarlet fever could cause blindness because I always remembered Mary’s blindness from reading the Little House stories and knew that scarlet fever was once a deadly disease,” explained Dr. Beth Tarini, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, in a statement published in USA Today. “I would ask other doctors, but no one could give me a definitive answer, so I started researching it.”

The team of investigation discovered evidence in the memories and letters by the writer that hinted at “spinal sickness” and symptoms similar to those found in a stroke.

“Meningoencephalitis could explain Mary’s symptoms, including the inflammation of the facial nerve that left the side of her face temporarily paralyzed,” noted Tarini. “And it could also lead to inflammation of the optic nerve that would result in a slow and progressive loss of sight.”

As scarlet fever was a common infectious disease between 1840 and 1883, the researchers can understand how Laura Ingalls Wilder could have thought that the illness that plagued Mary was scarlet fever.

“Laura’s memoirs were transformed into the Little House novels. Perhaps to make the story more understandable to children, the editors may have revised her writings to identify scarlet fever as Mary’s illness because it was so familiar to people and so many knew how frightening a scarlet fever diagnosis was,” says the study’s lead author Sarah S. Allexan, who is a medical student at the University of Colorado, in the USA Today story.

The researchers conclude that the books still have an impact in patients, with parents referring to scarlet fever when bringing their children in for checkups.

“Familiar literary references like these are powerful — especially when there is some historical truth to them,” concluded Tarini. “This research reminds us that our patients may harbor misconceptions about a diagnosis and that we, as physicians, need to be aware of the power of the words we use — because in the end, illness is seen through the eyes of the patient.”

Image Credit: HarperCollins

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