The real reason Mary Ingalls went blind | CNN (2023)

By Jennifer Bixler, CNN

Updated 1:17 PM EST, Mon November 7, 2016

The real reason Mary Ingalls went blind | CNN (1)

It's been more than 40 years since the beloved TV series "Little House on the Prairie" debuted on NBC. The show ran from 1974 to 1984, and it retains a huge fan base to this day. Here's what the residents of Walnut Grove are up to today.

The real reason Mary Ingalls went blind | CNN (2)

Melissa Gilbert, the actress who played the feisty, kindhearted Laura Ingalls from ages 9-19, still knows how to drive a stagecoach. It's a skill she mastered during the series. In recent years, Gilbert competed on "Dancing with the Stars" and authored a children's book. Gilbert, 51, married actor Timothy Busfield, and the couple resides in rural Michigan. She is currently running for a seat in Congress.

The real reason Mary Ingalls went blind | CNN (3)

Michael Landon played the role of "Pa" with so much swagger that it's hard to believe the real Charles Ingalls actually looked like this. Born Eugene Maurice Orowitz in 1936, Landon changed his name when he became an actor. He starred in the film "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" and the TV show "Bonanza" prior to "Little House," on which he was also an executive producer, director and writer. Landon died of cancer in 1991 at age 54. Fun fact: Landon made the decision to blow up the town of Walnut Grove in the series finale because he didn't want the set recycled into a trashy movie set.

(Video) The Real-Life Story of Mary Ingalls - Truth vs. Hollywood (Melissa Sue Anderson)
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Karen Grassle, now 73, played family matriarch Caroline "Ma" Ingalls. At a "Little House" cast reunion on "The Today Show" a few years ago, Grassle teared up, noting that she hadn't seen her three TV daughters since Landon's 1991 funeral.

The real reason Mary Ingalls went blind | CNN (5)

Melissa Sue Anderson's character, Mary Ingalls, arguably suffered the most hardship of all the "Little House" characters. (Not an easy feat, considering the series tagline easily could have been:"Get Doc Baker!") Poor Mary was stricken blind at a young age and later lost her baby in a fire. Today, Anderson, 53, lives in Montreal with her husband, son and daughter.

The real reason Mary Ingalls went blind | CNN (6)

Twin sisters Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush were 4 years old when they began sharing the role of Carrie Ingalls. (Lindsay is the one pictured here.) The twins, now 45, retired from acting as preteens.

The real reason Mary Ingalls went blind | CNN (7)

Although Alison Arngrim's "Little House" character, nasty Nellie Oleson, was constantly at odds with Gilbert's character, Laura, the two women are best friends in real life. Arngrim, 54, turned her Nellie anecdotes into a stand-up routine and released her memoir, "Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated," in 2010. She works closely with child advocacy causes, and she also became an AIDS activist after "Little House" co-star Steve Tracy died of complications from AIDS in 1986.

The real reason Mary Ingalls went blind | CNN (8)

Jonathan Gilbert, Melissa Gilbert's brother, played Willie Oleson, Nellie's trouble-making brother. Gilbert left acting after "Little House" and later earned his MBA in finance. According to Melissa Gilbert, Jonathan, 47, is a stockbroker in New York City.

The real reason Mary Ingalls went blind | CNN (9)

Richard Bull played Nels Oleson -- proprietor of Oleson's Mercantile and long-suffering husband of Harriet Oleson. He died in February 2014 at the age of 89.

(Video) Video commentary about Mary went blind in Little House on the Prairie

The real reason Mary Ingalls went blind | CNN (10)

Dean Butler played Almanzo Wilder, the man who won Laura's heart. She called him "Manly"; he called her "Beth." Butler, 59, serves as the narrator on the "Little House" documentaries featured in the 40th anniversary Blu-ray releases. Butler is married to actress Katherine Cannon, who played Donna Martin's overly critical mother on "Beverly Hills 90210."

The real reason Mary Ingalls went blind | CNN (11)

Linwood Boomer played Mary Ingalls' schoolteacher-turned-love interest (and later, husband) Adam Kendall. Boomer went on to create the TV series "Malcolm in the Middle." Boomer, who as a child was in his school's gifted program, was the inspiration for the Malcolm character. Boomer, 60, was also a consulting producer on "The Mindy Project."

The real reason Mary Ingalls went blind | CNN (12)

Matthew Labyorteaux played adopted son Albert Ingalls. Today, Labyorteaux, 49, does voice acting for commercials, video games and animated series.

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Charlotte Stewart, who played impossibly lovely schoolmarm Miss Beadle, is also famous for her work with director David Lynch in the 1977 film "Eraserhead" and the TV series "Twin Peaks." Stewart, 74, is now retired and residing in Napa, California.

'Little House on the Prairie': Where are they now?

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story was published on in February 2013.

Story highlights

In the "Little House" series, Mary Ingalls was said to have been blinded by scarlet fever

Researchers found that the real Mary Ingalls might have had viral meningoencephalitis


If you watched “Little House on the Prairie,” chances are, you remember the story of Mary Ingalls.

(Video) LHOTP- Mary Ingalls Shattered

The television show and popular book series – and maybe even a “Little House” movie in the near future – draw on the real-life experiences of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Mary, Laura’s sister, went blind as a teenager after contracting scarlet fever, according to the story. Recently, a team of medical researchers raised the question about whether that’s true.

Dr. Beth Tarini, one of the co-authors of the paper, became intrigued by the question as a medical student.

Still of Melissa Sue Anderson, Michael Landon, Karen Grassle and Matthew Labyorteaux in Little House on the Prairie (1974) NBC 'Little House on the Prairie' movie lands at Paramount

“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,’ ” recalled Tarini, who is now an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan. My supervisor said, “I don’t think so.”

Tarini started doing research. Over the course of 10 years, she and her team of researchers pored over old papers and letters written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, local newspaper accounts of Mary’s illness and epidemiological data on blindness and infectious disease in the late 19th century. What they found was intriguing.

In Wilder’s unpublished memoir, “Pioneer Girl,” there is no reference to Mary having scarlet fever the year she went blind. (She did have scarlet fever when she was much younger.) “She never says scarlet fever. She never says rash,” Tarini said, pointing out that the rash is a telltale sign of scarlet fever.

Digging deeper, when researchers looked at epidemiological data from the time, they saw that most cases of blindness attributed to scarlet fever were temporary. In addition, newspaper accounts of Mary’s illness report “severe headaches” and one side of her face being partially paralyzed.

Courtesy Christine Myers Parents create 'visual bucket list' for daughter who's going blind

Finally, and perhaps the most important piece of evidence, in a letter Wilder wrote to her daughter, Rose, right before her book “By the Shores of Silver Lake” was published, she makes reference “some sort of spinal sickness.” The letter also mentions that Mary saw a specialist in Chicago who said “the nerves of her eyes were paralyzed and there was no hope.”

Diagnosis by these disease detectives: viral meningoencephalitis, which causes inflammation of the brain and the meninges, the membrane that covers the brain. In severe cases, it can cause inflammation of the optic nerve that can result in a slow and progressive loss of sight.

It may not be the biggest bombshell to hit the medical world, but to “Little House” fans, the question remains: Why did Wilder change her sister’s illness to scarlet fever? The study authors believe it could be because Wilder and her editors thought scarlet fever would be more relatable to her readers. Scarlet fever is mentioned in other books from the period, including “Little Women” and “Frankenstein.”

But there is also an important wider medical lesson we can learn from this research. Today, about 10% of people infected with strep get scarlet fever, says Tarini. It is easily treatable. But because the cultural reference to scarlet fever is so ingrained in our culture, people assume it is very dangerous.

“People read as children that scarlet fever makes you go blind,” Tarini said. “Parents look concerned … so I have to debunk it in the office.”

The study was published in the journal Pediatrics in March 2013.

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