Lessons from Laura Ingalls Wilder

Since I used some of my free time this summer to reread the Little House books, I was excited to read about recent research published in Pediatrics regarding Laura Ingalls Wilder’s sister Mary. One of the saddest events in the book is when Mary goes blind after contracting Scarlet Fever.

A doctor named Beth A. Tarini eventually used the fact that Scarlet Fever doesn’t actually cause blindness, and did research to discover instead that Mary likely had viral meningoencephalitis (an inflammation of the brain’s membranes, which I just learned about today in neurology). The illness was likely changed to Scarlet Fever to be more easily recognized by readers.

Dr. Tarini’s research is important because she notes that as a pediatrician, parents of children diagnosed with Scarlet Fever (who read the Little Houses books as children) are often terrified that their children will suffer a similar fate. Tarini told NPR:

It has taught me an important lesson as a physician that, for instance, when I talk about scarlet fever, there’s what scarlet fever means to me, and there’s what scarlet fever means to the patient. And so it doesn’t matter what I think scarlet fever means. It matters what the patient sees it as and what risks or dangers they see in a diagnosis of scarlet fever. And clearly here, this book has served to forge a memory and an association with millions of people that has lasted with them for decades of their life.

It’s important for clinicians to realize that pop culture can be a powerful tool for disseminating medical information, even if that information isn’t always accurate. Even in my own studies, I am surprised by how often things I learn in class remind my classmates and me of things we’ve seen on shows like “Grey’s Anatomy.”


I have to point out that today would have been 146th birthday. Happy birthday, Laura!


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