Mary Ingalls Did Not Go Blind From Scarlet Fever & Other Comments On Old-Time Diseases

I’m pretty well known amongst my friends for throwing out names of old-time illnesses when I’m sick. “Oh, I’m suffering from galloping consumption,” I told one of my friends one day as I hacked on the phone. “It’s a real catarrh conundrum.” My friend, of course, probably secretly thought I was nuts, but this is what comes of reading classic novels and medical textbooks since the age of about 6. I have been steeped in medical lore since I was little, and I love every second of it.

I actually caught an old-timey illness when I was about 24 – I got scarlet fever. I know, who gets scarlet fever in this day and age? But I did. I came down with the sore throat a few days after Christmas and then developed the fever, diarrhea and horrible chills that evening on our way back from my grandfather’s. I spent the next week in bed, dying, and on the third day, the telltale rash came out on my chest, abdomen, arms and legs. It was definitely one of the sickest times I’ve ever had, only getting better once I got on antibiotics, and I can understand completely why so many children in the 1800s succumbed to it. You basically feel like you’re being beaten constantly with a baseball bat.

I luckily did not have any of the complications of scarlet fever, which can include heart issues, deafness, and paralysis. But my right side was very stiff for a long time after the illness was gone and my hair completely changed from being poker-straight to slightly curly, and I ended up losing a lot of it during the illness. (I didn’t go bald or anything, but the hairs coming out of my head were certainly alarming when I took showers.) I got off easily, but many people in the past did not.

We’ve all probably read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and we all know that Mary Ingalls, Laura’s sister, went blind from scarlet fever. Except that it never totally made sense to me why she would go blind. Blindness is not a complication of the disease. Well, I recently read an article that states that Mary Ingalls had a form of encephalitis that probably caused her blindness. She also underwent several head surgeries in the 1880s to try to fix it. Laura likely simplified the story for younger readers because explaining a complication that wasn’t really well-understood to kids would make them lose interest.

And then there’s Beth in Little Women – she died later of weakness from scarlet fever. Except she didn’t – she developed rheumatic fever as a (common) complication, which made her heart weak and unable to handle much exertion. She eventually passed away of congestive heart failure (most likely, from the description of how she died). Again, simplified for a child audience, but raising questions of how these characters really died.

I think it’s interesting to look back at records of my genealogy and hear the stories of how children and adults died young. My great-great-grandmother died of “a pelvic ailment” that was likely some kind of cancer. My great-uncle Victor died at the age of 2 from what was thought to be influenza, but that no one is really sure about. Children died of all sorts of illnesses that were never recorded, because child death was so normal back then. There are many post-mortem photographs (and if you click this link, click at your own risk, some of them can be very disturbing) of children who clearly have died of illnesses that our children would shake off in an instant. Interesting and sad, piecing together the medical records of the past.

One such interesting ailment was known as “winter fever”. What this is, exactly, isn’t really clear. I imagine it was some kind of cold or flu virus that kids get all the time in the winter – a high fever, congestion, and maybe some stomach ailments. The only difference is, we can medicate a high fever with Advil or Tylenol. They really had nothing to bring it down but ice baths, which shocked the system and could make illness even worse. Very sad to know that your child had a good chance of dying back then . . . but again, you had children knowing that they might not live long. This link talks about the types of illnesses people could get back then, and clarifies a lot of the descriptions you might read in books!

I’m recovering from the grippe (eh? Eh? It’s the stomach flu!) and entertaining myself by reading all sorts of articles about old-time illnesses. They were probably awful to have, but they make interesting reading for me.

Are you interested in old-time illnesses? What are some of the questions you’ve had about books you’ve read or old stories you’ve accepted? Also, to learn more about the story behind the Little House books, visit The Pioneer Girl website and look out for Ingalls Wilder’s memoir, coming out in June!

Scarlet Fever quarantine notice

I’m sure my parents wanted to put one of these on the door when I had scarlet fever!

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