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JFK’s sister Rosemary was given one of the first lobotomies

Goran Blazeski

The Kennedy clan is one of the most famous families in the United States. On the other hand, their story is one of the most tragic.

Joseph and Rose Kennedy had nine children. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. who was supposed to run for President of the United States was killed in World War II. We are all familiar with the story of their second-born son John, who was assassinated. Robert was also assassinated and their sister, Kathleen, died in a plane crash.


What about Rosemary Kennedy? Her story was a mystery for a long period and only recently the details of her life came to light. Rosemary Kennedy was born on September 13th, 1918, she was the third child and the eldest daughter of Joseph and Rose Kennedy. Although she was part of one of the most famous families in the United States, she disappeared from public view in her 20s.

Joseph and Rose Kennedy as they arrive for dinner at the Colony restaurant in New York, November 1st, 1940. At the time, Joseph Kennedy was the US Ambassador to the UK
Joseph and Rose Kennedy as they arrive for dinner at the Colony restaurant in New York, November 1st, 1940. At the time, Joseph Kennedy was the US Ambassador to the UK

Reportedly when her mother Rose was in labor with Rosemary, the nurse actually delayed her birth by pushing the baby’s head back into the birth canal until the doctor arrived. Rosemary was deprived of oxygen, which probably caused brain damage.

Growing up, it became clear that she had some level of developmental delay. Keeping up with her bright siblings was difficult and frustrating for Rosemary and her parents were told that she had learning difficulties and was unable to master the basics of reading and writing. They decided to send her to a Pennsylvania boarding school for intellectually challenged students when she was 11 years old. She would change several schools after that, but she never went beyond the third or fourth grade in her studies.

As historian Kate Clifford Larson wrote in her book The Hidden Kennedy, Rosemary would write heartbreaking letters to her father while she was in the boarding school: “Darling Daddy, I hate to disappoint you in any way. Come to see me very soon. I get very lonesome every day,” teenage Rosemary wrote to her father.

When her father became the United States ambassador to Great Britain in 1938, Rosemary went to live in London where she thrived in a convent school making a remarkable progress. However, when they returned to the United States in 1940, she became very rebellious and even began sneaking out to see boys. Her parents worried that she might get pregnant and cause significant damage to the family name and to the political careers of their sons.

When her father learned about frontal lobotomy, he scheduled the procedure for Rosemary, ignoring the warnings of the American Medical Association. This procedure involves the cutting off connections to and from the prefrontal cortex, or anterior part of the frontal lobes of the brain with the goal to exert influence on the psychological experience and behavior of the patient.

In November 1941, when Rosemary was 23 years old, James W. Watts and Walter Freeman carried out the procedure that would change the life of Rosemary forever. They asked her to sing God Bless America while they cut into her brain, and stopped when she became incoherent, then silent. They knew that the procedure wasn’t successful.

Dr. Walter Freeman left, and Dr. James W. Watts
Dr. Walter Freeman left, and Dr. James W. Watts

The catastrophic lobotomy left her permanently disabled and unable to care for herself. She was sent to St. Coletta’s School for Exceptional Children in Jefferson, Wisconsin, where she would live for the rest of her life.

Rosemary was hidden from public view and her siblings learned the truth about her 20 years later. Her mother didn’t visit her for 20 years and her father never saw her again. When he died the other Kennedy children began to visit Rosemary and they would often bring her to Boston.

Read another story from us: Walter Freeman, who championed lobotomy in the US, was touring with his “lobotomobile” demonstrating the procedure

Rosemary Kennedy died on January 7th, 2005, at the Fort Atkinson Memorial Hospital in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, at the age of 86.

Goran Blazeski

Goran Blazeski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News