Study: Scarlet Fever Did Not Blind Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pretty Sister

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Everything we know about scarlet fever is a lie! Good thing we didn’t know that much to begin with. Rampant in the late 1800s but easily treated with antibiotics, the disease probably would have been totally forgotten by now had it not been seared into the memory of America’s youth by the Little House on the Prairie book series. In By the Shores of Silver Lake, a bout of alleged scarlet fever left heroine and author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s sister Mary blind, nullifying the advantages Mary’s blonde hair and blue eyes had given her over brown-haired, brown-eyed Laura in previous books. But according to a paper published in Pediatrics today (and picked up by the AP), Wilder’s letters and unpublished memoir suggest the family didn’t know what had caused the blindness, referring to “some sort of spinal sickness.” The college for the blind Mary attended blamed it on “brain fever.” The family also suspiciously failed to mention scarlet fever’s telltale red rash. Wilder biographer William Anderson hypothesized that, “from a literary standpoint, scarlet fever just seemed to be the most convenient way” to describe what happened to Mary, because it was so common at the time. Inconvenient for those of us who worried our assorted fevers over the years might make us go blind!