The Truth About Rosemary Kennedy

By: Mia Williams | Last updated: Sep 13, 2022

The Kennedy family is almost American royalty. Three of the Kennedy sons were important political leaders, and the daughters went on to be activists and philanthropists.

However, in 1941, when she was just 23 years old, one of the sisters of Pres. John F. Kennedy (JFK) was lobotomized and went on to spend the remainder of her life completely isolated from her family and institutionalized. This is the true story of Rosemary Kennedy, the forgotten Kennedy.

The Kennedy Family Legacy Begins

JFK and his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, played a big role in creating the Camelot culture during the era in which they were political superstars. Later, JFK cemented his place in our collective culture when he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.


However, the Kennedy family was famous for a long time before JFK became president of the United States. The Kennedy family patriarch, Joe Kennedy Sr., was known in Boston for being a prominent businessman. Rose Kennedy, his wife, was a popular socialite and philanthropist.


Kennedy Family Secrets

As a married couple, Joe and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy had nine children. The most famous of their children were their sons: John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Ted Kennedy. Another son, Joe Kennedy Jr., died as a soldier.


Although the Kennedy family lived lives in the public eye, they had their share of family secrets, just like most families. One of the family’s darkest secrets was the story of their oldest daughter, Rosemary Kennedy. In 1941, Joe Kennedy Sr. made the decision to have Rosemary lobotomized to control her erratic behavior, and something went wrong during the surgery. She was never the same again.

Something Went Wrong During Rosemary's Birth

Rosemary Kennedy was born in 1918 in the city of Brookline, Massachusetts. The third Kennedy child, Rosemary was the family’s first daughter, and she was delivered in a home birth.


In a tragic twist, the doctor was running late to deliver the baby. Nervous about having to deliver a baby without a doctor to help, the nurse took matters into her own hands and reached up into Rose Kennedy’s birth canal. The nurse was effectively holding the baby firmly in place while she waited for the doctor to come.

The Kennedy Daughter Who Was "Different"

Unfortunately, the nurse’s good intentions were disastrous for Rosemary Kennedy. Because her brain was deprived of oxygen during her birth, she had lasting brain damage. The result was a slight mental deficiency that set her apart from the rest of the brilliant Kennedy siblings. Certainly, Rosemary had the same striking good looks as her siblings. With the signature dark hair and bright intelligent eyes,


Rosemary didn’t look like she had anything wrong with her. However, her parents knew from an early age that there was something different about their oldest daughter.

Rosemary Kennedy's Early Years

Growing up, Rosemary couldn’t quite keep up with her siblings. The active Kennedy family was famous for its collective athleticism, and Rosemary couldn’t run as fast or play ball as well. She was frequently excluded from the activities her siblings were involved in, and this led her to experience what her family called “fits.”

Later, experts realized that these “fits” were actually episodes or seizures that had to do with her mental illness. Sadly, the 1920s was an era in which any type of mental deficiency or mental illness carried a huge stigma.


An Attempt to Educate Rosemary

Concerned for her daughter, Rose Kennedy pulled Rosemary out of school and brought in a tutor so that Rosemary could learn from home. When she was a little older, the family sent Rosemary to a boarding school instead of institutionalizing her. As she blossomed into a beautiful young woman, Rosemary’s father was appointed as an ambassador to England.

This presented a unique opportunity. Along with her sisters, Rosemary was presented to the British public at court. Although mentally challenged, Rosemary was a revered debutant who received much praise from the National Park Service. She was described as “warmly responsive” and affectionate.


Rosemary's Problems Began to Escalate

While in England, Rosemary entered a Catholic school that was run by nuns. The nuns were training Rosemary to be a teacher’s aide, and she was doing well with her learning. However, pending the coming of World War II, the Kennedy family had to move back to the U.S.

Once there, Rosemary’s education ceased, and the family placed her in a convent. However, Rosemary didn’t thrive at this convent. Instead, she seemed to be going backward and became increasingly difficult and irritable by the time she was 22 years old.


A Threat to Political Aspirations

By this time, Joe Kennedy Sr. was grooming his sons for political careers, and he feared that Rosemary’s negative behavior could affect the reputation of the budding politicians. Eager to help his daughter, Joe Kennedy made the grave mistake of consulting a man named Dr. Walter Freeman, who had a solution to the problem: a lobotomy.

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When it was initially introduced, the lobotomy was considered to be a type of cure-all for people with mental illnesses or mental disabilities. Unfortunately, this procedure was profoundly destructive in many cases. Nevertheless, Joe Kennedy decided to proceed with lobotomizing his oldest daughter.


A Botched Operation

In later years, Rose Kennedy claimed that she didn’t know that her husband was having Rosemary lobotomized, and she did not find out about it until the procedure had already occurred. During Rosemary’s procedure, the doctors drilled two holes into her skull, and then they inserted metal spatulas. These spatulas severed the link between Rosemary’s pre-frontal cortex and the other part of the brain.

Rosemary remained awake throughout the entire operation. During this time, she was reciting poems to the nurses and speaking. When she stopped talking, everyone in the room knew that the procedure was finished.


The Kennedy Family's Darkest Secret

Nearly immediately after Rosemary was lobotomized, her family knew something was terribly wrong. The operation didn’t cure Rosemary’s intellectual challenges. In fact, the lobotomy left the young woman completely disabled. She could no longer walk properly, and she couldn’t speak.


The family moved Rosemary to an institution where she spent several months in intensive physical therapy. With the help of the therapists, she was able to regain partial use of one of her arms. For 20 years, the Kennedy family kept Rosemary secluded and never went to visit her.


Rose Kennedy Reunites With Her Daughter

After Joe Kennedy had a stroke, Rose Kennedy went to see her daughter. Rosemary attacked Rose in a panic, and she didn’t know how to express herself. At this point, the family knew the damage they had done to Rosemary, and they started to champion the rights of disabled people. Pres. John F. Kennedy signed an act to protect people with mental retardation, and his brother Ed continued to campaign for the rights of these people when he was a senator.

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Later, Rosemary’s sister Eunice Kennedy founded the Special Olympics. Although Eunice denied that she founded the organization because of her sister’s problems, most experts agree that it definitely played a role.


Rosemary Kennedy's Later Years

Rosemary Kennedy was later reunited with her family and visited by many of them. She was even able to attend family gatherings.

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Rosemary spent the remainder of her life being cared for in a residential care facility. She died in 2005 at the age of 86.