Many people might not know that the Kennedy family was famous long before John F. Kennedy became the president of the United States. His sister Rosemary grew quite renowned after he assumed the presidency due to a barbaric medical procedure she went through at the age of 23.
Before Rosemary Kennedy's lobotomy, JFK's sister was a loving and respectful young woman who adored her dad, Joe. JFK's father, Joe Kennedy, was a politician, and he decided to allow a lobotomy on his daughter due to her increasingly erratic behavior. Unfortunately, Rosemary Kennedy's lobotomy left her incapable of forming a sentence.
After realizing how badly they had messed up, the family decided to keep the whole thing a secret. In short, Rosemary Kennedy's lobotomy was a source of shame for her family for many decades. The family also had trouble coming to terms with the fact that the 23-year-old's life had been changed for good.
She spent much of her life in a convent in Wisconsin because she could not live independently after the crippling medical procedure. Even when she passed away at the age of 86, President John F. Kennedy's eldest daughter was still reeling from the effects of her prefrontal lobotomy.
Life Before Rosemary Kennedy's Lobotomy
Rosemary Kennedy was born Rose Marie Kennedy in 1989. She was named after her mother.
Although she was the third child of Joseph Kennedy and was his eldest daughter, the Kennedys had nine children in total.
When she was five, it was apparent that Rosemary was physically and mentally impaired.
She took longer to crawl, walk, and speak than her brothers. She suffered from learning difficulties at school, but she still participated in many family activities. Rosemary Kennedy also had a journal in which she wrote about the people she met and the dances she attended.
People theorized that she was disabled because she was born during a flu epidemic. However, blame was also put on a genetic defect, poorly used forceps, and delayed delivery.
Due to the flu, a doctor was not immediately available to attend to Rose Kennedy, her mother. She was asked to keep her legs together to keep the baby in place until the doctor arrived.
As a result, Rosemary spent two hours in the birth canal, which is believed to have deprived her of oxygen, leading to her mental impairment.
Her mother described her as being "slow in everything." However, her family was not keen on sending her to an institution like other "feebleminded" kids. They settled on giving her a little more attention at home.
At 11, she was sent to a boarding school in Pennsylvania for the intellectually disabled. When she was 15, she was taken to Sacred Heart Convent in Rhode Island, where she was taught separately from the others.
The family tried to keep Rosemary's mental health status a secret because, at the time, there was a lot of stigma around mental disability. Although they allowed her to mingle with the family, they tried their best to conceal that she was disabled.
Rosemary Kennedy's Situation Worsened As She Grew Older
When Joe Kennedy was made the US Ambassador to Britain in 1938, she accompanied him to London.
During the family's presentation to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, she tripped and almost fell despite practicing the royal curtsy for several hours. The king and queen acted as if nothing happened, and her father generally considered the whole incident a success.
Unfortunately, after about a year, when she got back home, it seemed that her condition was worsening. The parents got several tutors for her, and her siblings were asked to treat her as they would treat other normal kids.
Unfortunately, her situation kept getting worse over time. However, she seemed to be making progress in her attempts to interact better with the outside world.
In 1939, things took a turn for the worse. She was 21 then, and she grew violent and had vicious mood swings. She was also irritable and challenging.
She would throw tantrums and even hit those taking care of her. Rosemary also started to walk in the streets at night, terrifying for her mother, who feared she would suffer an attack or end up pregnant.
She was kicked out of summer camp and later from a boarding school in Philadelphia due to her behavior. Even after she was sent to a convent afterward, she often sneaked out, and she was suspected of being sexually involved with several partners.
Rosemary would sneak out and meet strange men in bars and take them home.
Her father was growing increasingly concerned that she would be a huge source of embarrassment for her family. The stakes were incredibly high because Joe was trying to get his sons into politics, and he was afraid Rosemary's behavior would get in their way if it went on unchecked.
Something had to be done, and Joe Kennedy started talking to specialists, including Walter Freeman, a neurologist. Freeman had done his first lobotomy in 1936.
Rosemary Kennedy's Lobotomy
Freeman managed to convince Joe Kennedy that a lobotomy, which involves severing the prefrontal lobe with an ice pick and a sharp tap using a hammer, would calm Rosemary down and allow her to have an everyday peaceful life.
With that, a decision was made to proceed with Rosemary Kennedy's lobotomy in 1941. However, it wouldn't take long before it was apparent that the decision was a huge mistake. Rosemary could not speak intelligibly. She also became incontinent.
Her mental capacity had been reduced to that of a two-year-old child.
During Rosemary Kennedy's lobotomy, she was given a mild tranquilizer, and the doctor made an incision of about an inch through which he put what looked like a butter knife. The doctor then swung it up and down to cut her brain tissue.
All the while, he was asking her questions, and when she became incoherent, he stopped.
Although the operation got rid of the violence and the seizures, it also permanently disabled Rosemary. It was pretty clear she would never be normal again and would need constant care all her life.
According to a doctor who was present during Rosemary Kennedy's lobotomy, the procedure was not the problem. Instead, she got into a deep depression after the operation.
The drastic impact of Rosemary Kennedy's lobotomy led to the decision to put her at St Coletta nunnery in Jefferson, Wisconsin, on the recommendation of Archbishop of Cushing. She stayed there until her death several decades later.
Life For The Kennedys After Rosemary Kennedy's Lobotomy
Having one of their own suffer the incapacitating impact of a questionable medical procedure had quite an effect on the Kennedys. Joe Kennedy started treating her daughter as if she never existed. He did not even want questions about her.
After Rosemary Kennedy's lobotomy, her mother Rose did not visit her for 20 years. She only went to visit her after Joe had a massive stroke. On seeing her, Rosemary tried to attack her. She had no other means through which to express herself.
However, after her brother John became president in 1960, Rosemary Kennedy's lobotomy got public attention.
A year after JFK became president, Eunice Kennedy started the Special Olympics for mentally disabled athletes. The event now involves over a million athletes from more than 100 countries.
Eunice also started to involve her disabled sister in the lives of other family members. This helped rebuild her relationships with them. When she passed away, many of her siblings were by her bedside.
Her brother, President John F. Kennedy, was also motivated by her plight to set up hospitals, schools, and other facilities in her honor. So, even though Rosemary Kennedy's lobotomy seemed like it destroyed her life, it helped bring more attention to people living with mental health issues in our society.
Rosemary Kennedy's Lobotomy Was A Desperate Last-Ditch Effort
Without a doubt, Joe Kennedy must have been quite desperate to be comfortable with Rosemary Kennedy's lobotomy. After all, there were many issues with the newly introduced cure-all for all mental disorders.
People were never the same after the procedure. However, Joe Kennedy ignored all these warnings and went ahead with the procedure even though Rosemary's siblings objected to the plan.
Rosemary was not in on what was going on. The decision to give her a lobotomy, a procedure described at the time as being easier than curing a toothache, was not her own.
The issue of Rosemary Kennedy's lobotomy was explored in a book titled Sins of the Father by Ronald Kessler. After the procedure, the young woman could not even walk.
Fortunately, Rosemary's plight resulted in John F. Kennedy signing the Maternal and Child Health and Mental Retardation Planning Amendment to the Social Security Act, later replaced by the Disabilities Act.
According to Fully Alive, a book by Timothy Shriver, her nephew, Rosemary Kennedy's lobotomy inspired the whole family to a life of service.