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Rosemary Kennedy – The Shameful Start


L-R: Robert Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Eunice Kennedy, Jean Kennedy (on lap of) Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (behind) Patricia Kennedy, Kathleen Kennedy, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (behind) Rosemary Kennedy. Edward Kennedy was not born yet. Dog in foreground is “Buddy”.


Rosemary was the third eldest child born to Joseph and Rose Kennedy in 1918.  Rose Kennedy dedicated a book to her daughter with, “To my daughter Rosemary and others like her – retarded in mind but blessed in spirit.”[1] The dedication indicates that, despite her mental handicap, Rosemary brought joy to the family. Yet, as Rosemary grew older, her temperament became violent and Joseph, unable to deal with his less than perfect child, sent her to live with the family of his aid, Edward Moore. Over the course of her life, she attended a special boarding school, St. Coletta’s School in Wisconsin, and lived in convents. As the prominent political family in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s, the Kennedy’s consciously detached themselves from Rosemary fearing her condition would reflect on the family. It was evident that the Kennedy clan was ashamed of Rosemary. While the Kennedy’s avoided discussing Rosemary, they eventually reported her condition as retarded because mental retardation had less of a social stigma than other mental illnesses. Mental retardation was a congenital disorder while mental illness was seen as having an environmental cause.  However, current evidence indicates that Rosemary more likely suffered from the mental illness of depression due to her “irritable mood or persistent angers, change in weight, pacing, waking up during the night, and retardation of speech or thinking.”[2]  Furthermore, as the case studies indicate, doctors never did lobotomies on the mentally retarded during those early years so they would not have performed the procedure on Rosemary unless she was diagnosed with a mental illness.

Joseph subjected his daughter to the Freeman-Watts lobotomy behind his wife’s back. The Kennedy family cook recalled that, “the old man took her and didn’t tell anyone. Mrs. Kennedy didn’t  know.” [3] Dr. Watts remembered the surgery recalling, “I think she was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer, I made the surgical incision.”[4] He states that Freeman, the top surgeon at the time, required the patient to talk throughout the procedure in order to estimate the length of their brain incision. Unfortunately, Rosemary’s surgery was unsuccessful rendering her “permanently incapacitated.”[5] Freeman, refusing to admit to failure, associated this incapacitation with her illness, not the surgery, stating that “losses in intelligence, more, and other measurable psychological abilities are due to the psychosis, not to the lobotomy.”[6] However, in later years, Freeman would report that ten percent of affectives had unsuccessful surgery due to the extensiveness of the lobotomy. In fact, Dr. Watts recalled that when she began to speak incoherently, and not before, they would stop the incision leaving some permanent brain dysfunction.[7]

While Rosemary was not mentally retarded prior to the lobotomy, she was decidedly retarded with the mental capacity of a two-year-old after the lobotomy. Rosemary,  twenty three years old and lacking the ability to care for herself, was sent back to St. Coletta’s for custodial care – partly out of the shame of her family and partly out of fear that the public attention would worsen her condition.[8] It wasn’t until the 1960s that the family began to mention Rosemary’s existence but still holding to the claim she was mentally retarded. In 1968, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Rosemary’s aunt, founded Special Olympics International and the family and the family, at least outwardly, acknowledged and supported Rosemary’s condition.


Rosemary Kennedy

Rosemary Kennedy

Rosemary’s story represents the beginnings of psychosurgery. Her actual procedure in which her skull was cut open and her brain was sliced marked early lobotomy techniques. Beginning in 1946, Drs. Freeman and Watts began the transorbital lobotomy in which they inserted an icepick into the patient’s eyes to lobotomize the brain.[9] With limited success, they switched to an approach through the eyes, transorbital lobotomy. When Rosemary had her prefrontal lobotomy, she was one of only sixty-six lobotomies performed by Freeman and Watts.[10] It was not surprising that Rosemary had poor results as the surgery itself was new and was more invasive then transorbital lobotomy.



[1] Ronald Kessler, The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded (New York: Warner Books, 1996), 239.

[2] Ibid., 245.

[3] Ibid., 247.

[4] As quoted in Ronald Kessler, The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded (New York: Warner Books, 1996),243.

[5] Ibid., 246.

[6] Freeman, “West Virginia”, 1135.

[7] Kessler, The Sins, 244.

[8] Ibid., 247.

[9] Jack David. Pressman, Last Resort: Psychosurgery and the Limits of Medicine (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 33

[10] Kessler, The Sins, 242.


Picture References

Sears, Richard. The Kennedy Family at Hyannis Port, 04 September 1931. September 4 1931. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Accessed October 25, 2013.

Rosemary Kennedy. April 1940. Hotograph in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Accessed October 25, 2013.





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