Mary’s Illness

USA Today contacted the South Dakota State Historical Society last week to discuss an article that was soon to appear in Pediatrics about Mary Ingalls’s blindness (read USA Today’s coverage here). An assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan speculates that the illness that caused Mary Ingalls’s blindness was probably viral meningoencephalitis—a big term that was not likely to find its way into Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books or her autobiography.

Mary Ingalls in 1889

Mary Ingalls in 1889
(photo: Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, De Smet, S.Dak.)

In Pioneer Girl, Wilder described the circumstances in this way: “Mary was taken suddenly sick with a pain in her head and grew worse quickly.” A few days later, one side of her face was “drawn out of shape,” and “Ma said Mary had had a stroke.” Two doctors in Walnut Grove attributed Mary’s failing eyesight to the stroke that had damaged the nerves in her eyes, which “were dying.” Wilder concluded: “They had a long name for her sickness and said it was the results of the measels [sic] from which she had never wholly recovered.”

In her fictional retelling of this episode in her sister’s life, which appears in the opening pages of By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura Ingalls Wilder ascribed the condition to a bout of scarlet fever, one of the most deadly childhood illnesses of the nineteenth century. Pamela Smith Hill, Wilder biographer, suggests, “Wilder probably chose scarlet fever for the fictional version because it was such a deadly disease and because after arguing with Rose about whether to include Mary’s blindness in the Little House books at all, it was a swift, clear, and believable alternative.” For the age group she was writing for, scarlet fever was understandable; viral meningoencephalitis is a term best understood by medical researchers and doctors.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

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15 thoughts on “Mary’s Illness

    • We wondered that, too, Cheryl. And to our surprise, we found that according to Webster’s dictionary, the first known usage of the term “meningoencephalitis” occurred in 1860. Mary was born in 1865 and went blind in 1879. We suspect that the article in Pediatrics will have more details about the history of the medical terminology of the time, and we are looking forward to reading it.

    • Diseases were certainly diagnosed with medical terminology at that time, and the family likely heard the full name of whatever the doctor determined the cause to be. laura even indicated that it had a “long” name. The common term for the condition namedin the Pediatrics article was “brain fever” and the family clearly knew this, as “brain fever” is the term listed in Mary’s record at the Iowa College for the Blind as the cause of her loss of sight. As for why Laura would use “scarlet fever” instead when writing By the Shores of Silver Lake, it is quite possible she was trying to avoid any misunderstanding, as “brain fever” was sometimes used to describe various types of suspected mental illness, and could too easily be interpreted as “hysteria” by readers. I am sure no one would want to portray Mary in such a way that might leave such mistaken and negative impression, so “scarlet fever” sounds plausible enough to readers of children’s fiction for the reasons cited by PGP’s entry above.

  1. At that time in history, the resulting diagnosis by the family would be, Mary became blind. There was noone to intellectualize about it or to supply medical terms unfamiliar to the family. They would adapt to help Mary. As I read the books as a child, I was concerned that Mary was blind and I appreciated reading the story as Laura shared her relationship with her sister.

  2. I have often wondered if there was some connection between the deaths of Ma and Pa’s Baby Freddie and Laura and Manly’s baby boy. And Grace and Carrie never had children. It always made me wonder if there was some genetic reason.

    • As for Carrie and Grace not having children, there are many possibilities. Three things to keep in mind: 1) Various forms of birth control were available through doctors and pharmacies although often sold under the guise of “regulating” a woman’s cycle or “repairing” various conditions which were assumed problematic by doctors. In this way, women had access to limiting family size (such as for economic reasons) despite the so-called Comstock Laws which prohibited distribution of information about contraception through the mail. Barrier methods of contraception had existed for hundreds of years, and these were common knowledge to many women of the time. Secondly, in the case of Carrie, she was not married until her early 40s, and may have already been experiencing compromised fertility due to poor health at a young age although married at 24, Grace may have had similar problems or may have used birth control due to persistent low income, as she and her husband Nate Dow were known to struggle financially. Third, during the late 19th and early 20th century, many women were subject to invasive operations and hysterectomies were common practice. It is possible that any of the sisters, or Caroline or Rose, may have undergone a surgery up to and including hysterectomy which of course would curtail their fertility entirely.

  3. I am so glad that in the books Mary’s blindess was mentioned. As a child of public schools, we had blind children in our Junior High School, and I think having read the Little House books helped to increase my understanding of my fellow students.
    When I think about the Ingalls’ family, they did their very best, but we now know their overall nutrition must have been lacking given the fact they could not always obtain dairy, for example, for the children. Just like Lori, I have wondered why the other girls, Carrie and Grace did not have children. Yet, LIW mentions in The Long Winter, and in Little Town On The Prarie, how very frail Carrie was, and you can see what a tiny little thing she was in the pictures.
    I can hardly wait to read Pioneer Girl! – love your emails!

  4. I alwasys wondered what Mary’s life was like at college? Did she send letters home? Is there any written record of what her life was like there? Also what was her life like after she came back home after college? I would like after the joy of learning that she loved it might have been a little boring for her to be at home. However I realize at the time there was not any other options open to her.

    • Interesting thoughts to ponder, Heather. Unfortunately we can’t say a lot about Mary’s life after college. She graduated in 1889, four years after Wilder’s wedding. Wilder does mention the graduation and Mary’s return home in Pioneer Girl, but not much beyond that.

  5. Wilder says the doctors concluded that it (Mary’s blindness) was a result of the measles “from which she had never wholly recovered.” I read in Cynthia Rylant’s book, “Old Town in the Green Groves” (which is about the Ingalls family’s time in Walnut Grove and is supposedly based off of notes, documents, etc. written by Wilder) that the Ingalls girls got measles.

    If this is true, perhaps the measles Wilder documents the doctors mentioning is the measles she (Laura, Mary, and Carrie, but not Grace, for apparently she was not born yet) contracted in Iowa. If By The Shores of Silver Lake’s beginning takes place shortly after the family leaves Iowa, it is very possible that the children had gotten measles a few months before the book’s start. It is possible this is the measles the doctors mentioned. Perhaps Mary never did fully recover.

    I know that measles most likely did not have a role in Mary’s blindness, but the mention of measles did remind me of what I read and so I thought I might share this. And again, I haven’t any clue if Rylant’s book is accurate and correct about the family’s time in Iowa.

    Only when Pioneer Girl is published will we get a clear picture of Wilder’s life, and for that I cannot wait. (I hope this comment was easy to follow, and, if you don’t quite understand what I am saying, I suggest reading Old Town In The Green Groves by Cynthia Rylant for a better understanding of what I am saying.)

    • This is being worked to death. It is logical that measles may have caused Mary’s blindness. We all know the danger of measles to the eyes–it can cause blindness.

      ~Mary A Welchert

      • It is not worked to death for those who are interested in the subject. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Follow the Breadcrumbs, Find Missouri | The Pioneer Girl Project

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