Today was quite the day for breaking news in the kidlit history world: Scarlet fever wasn’t the cause of Mary Ingalls’ blindness. Friends linked to articles on USA Today, the University of Michigan alumni newsletter, and jezebel.com–and I’m sure there were more. In a nutshell, Mary most likely had viral meningoencephalitis, a brain infection. And Laura most likely chose scarlet fever for literary purposes because it was an infinitely more familiar disease to her readers. Plus, it’s a lot easier to spell.
But here’s what I find most fascinating about this: this story isn’t hidden away on some obscure blog only read by Little House fanatics. It’s all over the place. Seriously, national news? On the day after the Super Bowl?
The stories are all a little different, but most stress that these books are fiction, based on history. And seem to conclude that part of the reason people are so fascinated with them is the reality within them. I also love this comment by the Beth Tarini, author of the report, because it seems like we are kindred spirits:
“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,” says 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.
“I would ask other doctors, but no one could give me a definitive answer, so I started researching it.”
When I was a kid, I was always curious about the diseases that popped up in books I was reading. Sometimes, I would look them up, which was much harder to do in the years before the internet. It’s a fascination that has remained–my best published piece is about tuberculosis in L. M. Montgomery’s work. This curiosity about medial history seems to be pretty wide-spread–witness how many people were looking up eclampsia after Lady Sybil’s death on Downton Abbey. Of course, I had already looked that one up after watching Call the Midwife.
For those of us who spend a lot of time hanging out in the past, we periodically get swept away by the “good old days.” But medical realities always cause us to crash back to earth. There are many reasons why I’m thrilled to be living in the 21st century, and modern medicine is certainly near the top of the list. When it comes down to it, I don’t care how exactly Mary lost her sight. But I do care that a disease took it from her, and that her sister became her “eyes.” After all, we might not have the Little House books if Laura hadn’t developed those powers of observation and description. Still, it’s not every day that Laura Ingalls Wilder is in the headlines! I’ll take what I can get.