In the popular series, Ingalls goes blind from scarlet fever, but researchers say it was a misdiagnosis

By Maggie Coughlan
Updated February 05, 2013 09:45 AM

Think you know everything about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series?

Think again.

Readers of the beloved series will remember how Wilder’s older sister Mary went blind as a result of scarlet fever. But a new study published in Pediatrics, the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, has revealed the cause of Mary’s blindness was likely meningoencephalitis – a disease similar to meningitis.

Over the course of 10 years, Dr. Beth Tarini and a team of researchers studied papers and letters written by Wilder, newspaper articles about Mary’s illness and data on blindness and infectious disease in the late 19th century, CNN reports.

Tarini discovered that in Pioneer Girl, Wilder’s unpublished memoir, there is no reference to Mary contracting scarlet fever before going blind. “She never says scarlet fever. She never says rash,” Tarini told CNN.

Then Tarini unveiled what would lead her to discover a different diagnosis. In a letter Wilder wrote to her daughter, Rose, she referenced Mary suffering from “some sort of spinal sickness.” The letter goes on to mention that Mary was told by specialist in Chicago that the “nerves of her eyes were paralyzed and there was no hope.”

But why would Wilder write that her sister suffered from scarlet fever? Researchers think perhaps Wilder and her editors felt the illness would be more relatable to her readers.