The large Kennedy brood in Hyannisport in 1931. Rosemary is seated on the far right. JFK Library
Rosemary was the oldest daughter born to Rose and Joseph Kennedy. The Kennedy family was famous for its large size and its competitive nature, and from the outset, it was evident that Rosemary was different from her siblings. She underwent a difficult birth which led to oxygen deprivation and her development as an infant and toddler were stunted as a result. She was held back in kindergarten twice, failing to pass the Massachusetts required examination for entry into the first grade. She later was sent to a private school where she was tutored separately from the other students.
Her family was aware of her problems, but the Kennedy money and the support of her siblings, especially her brother John, managed to keep them private. As Rosemary grew older her personality began to change. She developed a rebellious streak and began to exhibit mood swings, sometimes violently. She began to break the rules at the private school where she was educated and housed, often leaving the campus at night. Again the Kennedy money prevented the public humiliation of disciplinary action against her.
When Rosemary was 23 Joseph Kennedy, worried over the potential public embarrassment that she could cause the family with her increasingly reckless behavior, consulted a neurosurgeon about the relatively new procedure of lobotomy. At the time, in 1941, only 80 or so lobotomies had been performed in the United States. After discussing the risks and benefits of the procedure with doctors, but pointedly not with his wife, he decided to have Rosemary undergo the procedure.
Rosemary underwent a prefrontal lobotomy. The operation was performed by Dr. James Watts and Dr. Walter Freeman. The conscious Rosemary was under an anesthetic and asked to recite the Lord’s Prayer and other easily recalled things while the doctors cut into the brain. They continued until Rosemary could no longer respond coherently, at which point they declared the operation complete. Rosemary left the operating table with the mental capacity of a two-year-old child. She was sent immediately to a long-term care facility, and Joseph Kennedy went home to explain to his wife.
For the rest of her life, Rosemary remained institutionalized. Her very public family did not discuss her condition, other than in private between themselves, but never in the presence of Joseph Kennedy Sr. He did not visit her at the institution and it was twenty years before her mother visited her there. Eventually, she learned to walk with the support of a cane. She never learned to speak clearly. After her father died she was brought to visit the Kennedy compounds in Florida and Massachusetts occasionally but continued to reside in an institution. She died in 2005.
Also Read: 16 Examples of the Kennedy Curse.