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How Did Mary Ingalls Go Blind?

In the opening paragraphs of By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura Ingalls Wilder told of the scarlet fever that Ma, Mary, Carrie, and baby Grace all experienced. Though the doctor bill would be a difficult to pay, the larger concern was that the scarlet fever had left her sister, Mary Ingalls, blind.

In recent years, Dr. Beth A. Tarini devoted a lot of time to understanding what actually caused Mary's blindness. Scarlet fever can cause the loss of sight, but it's only temporary.
Dr. Tarini and a team studied the evidence, including the Pioneer Girl autobiography (linked to my review), letters, and even newspaper accounts about Mary. Of course, she also consulted medical books.

Eventually they came to the conclusion that Mary Ingalls's blindness was caused by meningoencephalitis, a brain infection and not scarlet fever. Dr. Tarini reported her findings in a pediatric journal. National media ran articles about how Mary Ingalls lost her sight.

Why did Laura Ingalls Wilder say scarlet fever caused Mary's blindness? We can't know for sure, but scarlet fever was a feared disease. Books like Louisa May Alcott's Little Women made readers aware of the deadly disease. It's possible Wilder or an editor chose scarlet fever because it was familiar. We have to remember, though the Little House books are autobiographical, they are also considered historical fiction. Wilder based the books on her childhood, but not every word in the books is true.

Laura Ingalls Wilder likely became a masterful observer and story teller as she became "eyes" for Mary. Later, Mary thrived at the Iowa College for the Blind in Vinton, Iowa. She enrolled there in November of 1881. The Dakota Territory paid for her schooling until she graduated on June 12, 1889.

The Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind has more information on Mary.

Read additional articles discussing how Mary Ingalls lost her sight at CNN, CBS, New York Times, and Ann Arbor News. (You likely saw some of those if you follow Little House Companion on Facebook.)

If you like learning the facts behind the fiction of the Little House books, you'll want to read my book The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion: A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide (Chicago Review Press, 2020, affiliate link). Check out the reviews to see if it might be a book you'd appreciate. 

 ~ Annette Whipple

 Annette is a nonfiction children's author. Learn more about her books and presentations at