Mary Blindness Reports

Porch at ISBSSS
I can picture Mary walking right here.

The recent research article on Mary’s blindness has certainly hit a media sweet spot. I am impressed reports managed to get in so many places and that without even tying it into Laura’s birthday which was later the same week it was released. It is always good for Laura Ingalls Wilder to get her name out again. I’ve been collecting news reports on the blindness paper, find the links below, but I wanted to wait until I read the original before I posted about it.The original study citation:

Blindness in Walnut Grove: How Did Mary Ingalls Lose Her Sight? Sarah S. Allexan, Carrie L. Byington Jerome I. Finkelstein, and Beth A Tarini, Pediatoric; originally published online February 4, 2013; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2012-1438

The paper itself is two pages with another half page of citations. The AP report which really does the best job reporting, it not only hits all the important details from the original paper, but also puts it in context with the series of other famous dead people diagnoses that have been popular research paper fodder lately.

The researchers get points for checking with Bill Anderson, the Redwood Gazette, the Hoover papers, the Iowa School for the Blind records (although the school is underplayed in the paper), and most impressively checking out old medical books and journals to make sure there hasn’t been any deviation between what we know as Scarlet Fever today and what it was known as in the nineteenth century (which I haven’t heard of any of the other authors of “what Mary really had” papers doing). Most interesting new facts are two points, one that Scarlet Fever is quite prominent in 19th century fiction (they cited a separate paper I’ll list below) and two, that Scarlet Fever fatality rates dropped for an unknown reason in the early 20th century before antibiotics were introduced. Unfortunately, these are very briefly skimmed over. Sadly nothing new has turned up that could be considered new evidence, no medical records discovered, no new diagnostic tests run, not even discovery of the original letter that told Laura what happened in Chicago first hand (although they do cite her report of it years later to Rose), no effort to explain reports of Mary’s condition in later life as her condition seemed to change over time, etc. As the paper itself says in discussing the medical diagnosis of the doctors at the time, “The basis for this diagnosis was likely clinical given that there was limited, if any, diagnostic testing available to differentiate among the various childhood illnesses.” Meaning doctors of the time didn’t really differentiate between diseases much as we do today because there was very little different you’d do in regard to treatment and there wasn’t much in the way of reliable tests open to the average doctor to tell one type of fever from another.  But those doctors at least had the benefit of examining Mary and her symptoms first hand, this diagnosis didn’t even have that. So while it’s an interesting speculation, it is basically speculation. We truly are lucky to know as much as we do about Laura Ingalls Wilder and Mary Ingalls’s lives and while never say never, it’s highly unlikely at this point that more definite information will ever be forthcoming on this point.

Article citation on Scarlet Fever in literature:
Peterson, AC “Brain Fever in 19th century literature: fact and fiction.” Vic Stud. 1976; 19(4): 445-464.

The reaction of the public has also been interesting because so many people seem surprised that Laura changed or gave an easy explanation over any facts. It’s as if one fact misremembered or changed invalidates the worth of the entire series. I don’t quite understand that reaction, but it does seem to be out there. It’s similar to the people who argue about where the books are shelved, rejecting that they are shelved as historic fiction. While Laura’s books are based on her life and her life experiences, they have been changed into a narrative and some points changed or altered in order to make the story work. That’s just a fact and in my mind, that enhances the value of series rather than diminishes it, it takes the basic everyday facts and builds a work of art, creativity, beauty, and warmth.

Thank you to everyone who sent a link to one of these stories to me. They were very helpful to the round up and I always am glad to find another Laura story.

If you only read one of these make it the first one and then read the NBC one too.

Intellihealth/AP (includes phonic pronunciation guide to the name of the diagnosed disease and best context):


USA Today:

US News and World Report:

CBS News (with photo of author of the study):


Fox Health News (includes phonic pronunciation guide to the name of the diagnosed disease):

NBC (best opening paragraph of the lot):

Jezebel (includes TV show slant):


New York Times Blog (most personal response):

NPR Radio:

Ann Arbor (the affiliation of one of the co-authors of the paper):

UPI (part of celebrity news roundup):

Yahoo Canada (international news):

French Tribune (international news):

Danish (international news):

**Note: Citation formats were taken verbatim from the article.

UPDATE: This was an incredibly minor update that I did when I was getting ready to repost this. Basically I fixed a couple of typos and moved the article I thought was best to the top of the list. This was recently kicked up to the top of the news pile again when someone who hadn’t reported on it before did a blog post. I don’t think anything else has changed.

Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation.Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, LinkedIn, and She is currently acting President of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.


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Sarah Uthoff - Trundlebed Tales

Sarah S. Uthoff is a nationally known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many times at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest. She is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic, and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. How can you help? Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, look at her photos, and find her on Facebook , Twitter , Google+, LinkedIn , SlideShare, and . Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and former director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.

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