For years, Rosemary Kennedy's story was kept secret after her lobotomy was botched leaving unable to walk or talk.
Though John F. Kennedy and Jackie might be the most recognizable members of the family, the Kennedys were famous long before John became president.
JFK’s father, Joe, was a prominent businessman in Boston and his wife, Rose, was a noted philanthropist and socialite. Together they had nine children, three of whom went into politics. For the most part they lived their lives in the open, almost like America’s version of a royal family.
But, like every family, they had their secrets.
Born in 1918, Rosemary Kennedy was the third child of Joe and Rose, and the first girl. During her birth, the obstetrician who was supposed to be delivering her was running late. Not wanting to deliver the baby without a doctor present, the nurse reached up into Rose’s birth canal, and held the baby in place.
The actions of the nurse would have lasting consequences for Rosemary. The lack of oxygen delivered to her brain during her birth caused lasting damage to her brain, resulting in a mental deficiency.
Though she looked like the rest of the Kennedys, with bright eyes and iconic dark hair, her parents knew she was different right away.
As a child, she was unable to keep up with her siblings, who would often play ball in the yard, or run around the neighborhood. Her lack of inclusion often caused “fits,” which were later discovered to be seizures or episodes relating to her mental illness.
However, in the 1920s mental illness was highly stigmatized. Fearing repercussions if her daughter couldn’t keep up, Rose pulled Rosemary out of school, instead hiring a tutor to teach the girl from home. Eventually, she sent her to a boarding school, in lieu of institutionalizing her.
In 1928, Joe was named an ambassador to the Court of St. James in England. The entire family moved across the Atlantic and was presented at court to the public. Despite her disabilities, Rosemary joined the family for the presentation.
Of course, no one knew the extent of her disability, as the Kennedys had worked hard to keep it quiet.
In England, Rosemary gained a sense of normalcy, as she had been placed in a Catholic school run by nuns. With the time and patience to teach her, they were training her to be a teacher’s aide and she was flourishing under their guidance.
However, in 1940, when Germany marched on Paris, the Kennedys were forced back to the states, and Rosemary’s education was abandoned. Once back stateside, Rose placed Rosemary in a convent, though it didn’t last long. According to the nuns, Rosemary would sneak out at night and go to bars, meet strange men and go home with them.
At the same time, Joe was grooming his two oldest boys for a career in politics. Rose and Joe worried that Rosemary’s behavior could create a bad reputation not just for herself but for the whole family, and eagerly searched for something that would help her.
Dr. Walter Freeman was the answer.
Freeman, along with his associate Dr. James Watts had been researching a neurological procedure that was said to cure the physically and mentally disabled. The procedure?
When it was first introduced, the lobotomy was hailed as a cure-all and was widely recommended by physicians. Despite the excitement, however, there were many warnings that the lobotomy, though occasionally effective, was also destructive. One woman described her daughter, a recipient, as being the same person on the outside, but like a new human on the inside.
Despite the warnings, Joe needed no convincing, as it seemed like this was the Kennedy family’s last hope. Years later, Rose would claim that she had no knowledge of the procedure until it had already happened. No one thought to ask if Rosemary had any thoughts of her own.
In 1941, when she was 23 years old, Rosemary Kennedy received a lobotomy. Two holes were drilled in her skull, through which small metal spatulas were inserted. The spatulas were used to sever the link between the pre-frontal cortex and the rest of the brain. Though it is not known whether he did so on Rosemary, Dr. Freeman would often insert an icepick through the patients eye to sever the link, as well as the spatula.
Throughout the entire procedure, Rosemary was awake, speaking with doctors and reciting poems to nurses. They knew the procedure was over when she stopped speaking.
Immediately after the procedure, the Kennedys realized that something was wrong.
Rosemary could no longer speak or walk. She was moved to an institution and spent months in physical therapy before she regained movement, and even then it was only partially in one arm.
Rosemary spent 20 years in the institution, unable to speak, walk, or see her family. It wasn’t until after Joe suffered a massive stroke that Rose went to go see her daughter again. In a panicked rage, Rosemary attacked her mother, unable to express herself any other way.
At that point, the Kennedys realized what they had done, and began to champion rights for the mentally disabled. JFK would use his presidency to sign the Maternal and Child Health and Mental Retardation Planning Amendment to the Social Security Act, the precursor to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which his brother Ted pushed for during his time as a senator. Eunice Kennedy, JFK and Rosemary’s sister also founded the Special Olympics in 1962, to champion the achievements and abilities of the physically and mentally disabled.
After being reunited with her family, Rosemary lived out the rest of her life in Saint Coletta’s, a residential care facility in Jefferson, Wisconsin, until her death in 2005.