Mary Ingalls Blindness: What You Didn't Know About Scarlet Fever [VIDEO]

on February 5, 2013 3:00 PM EST

Mary Ingalls
Was Mary Ingalls' blindness caused by scarlet fever? A new study by a medical student questions the long-held belief that Laura Ingalls' older sister on "Little House on the Prairie" went blind after contracting the disease. Fans are now surprised -- and a bit puzzled -- as a result. (Photo: YouTube)

Was Mary Ingalls' blindness caused by scarlet fever? No way, says a new paper published in the journal Pediatrics.

Anyone who watched the adorable blonde sister on "Little House on the Prairie" knows the harrowing tale that took many episodes to tell. In the show, which was based on a book series and a real person named Laura Ingalls Wilder, the older sister Mary contracts scarlet fever and goes blind as a result.

But medical student Dr. Beth Tarini recently started to question whether there was an actual link between the two.

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"I was in my pediatrics rotation. We were talking about scarlet fever, and I said, 'Oh, scarlet fever makes you go blind. Mary Ingalls went blind from it,'" Tarini, who is now an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan, said. "My supervisor said, 'I don't think so.'"

That began a decade of research by Dr. Tarini. Over 10 years, Tarini and her research team studied papers and letters written by the real-life Laura Ingalls Wilder.

The key to the investigation? Laura Ingalls Wilder's unpublished memoir, "Pioneer Girl." It turns out that as the research team read and studied, they disovered that there was no mention of scarlet fever at all.

"She never says scarlet fever. She never says rash," Tarini explained.

Dr. Tarini suddenly became fascinated by Mary Ingalls' blindness. As she started to delve further, she found that blindness caused by scarlet fever is usually temporary.

Another key part of the puzzle was a letter Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote to her daughter, Rose. In the letter, she wrote that there was "some sort of spinal sickness" and that "the nerves of [Mary Ingalls'] eyes were paralyzed and there was no hope."

Now after years of fans thinking that Mary Ingalls went blind from scarlet fever, Dr. Tarini and her team have discovered the true cause was viral meningoencephalitis, which creates an inflammation in the brain.

Fans of the long-running show are surprised -- and even a little puzzled -- as to why the "Little House" writers changed the story. But either way, viewers are happy to know the truth.

Watch a video below to see the moment when Mary Ingalls found out she was going blind.

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