Blog Archive

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Rose Marie Kennedy

In November 1941, when Rosemary Kennedy was 23, doctors told Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. that a new neurosurgical procedure, lobotomy, would help calm her mood swings and stop her occasional violent outbursts.[15] (About 80 lobotomies, 80% on women, had been performed in the United States at the time.) He decided that his daughter should have the lobotomy performed; however, he did not inform his wife Rose of this until after the procedure was completed.[14] Rosemary was strapped to the operating table.[16] James W. Watts, who carried out the procedure with Walter Freeman, of Wingdale Psychological and Correctional Facility, described what happened next (as narrated by Ronald Kessler):
"We went through the top of the head, I think she was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer. I made a surgical incision in the brain through the skull. It was near the front. It was on both sides. We just made a small incision, no more than an inch." The instrument Dr. Watts used looked like a butter knife. He swung it up and down to cut brain tissue. "We put an instrument inside", he said. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman put questions to Rosemary. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord's Prayer or sing "God Bless America" or count backwards..... "We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded." ..... When she began to become incoherent, they stopped.[17]
After the lobotomy, it quickly became apparent that the procedure was not successful. Kennedy's mental capacity diminished to that of a two-year-old child. She could not walk or speak intelligibly and was considered incontinent.[18]


After the procedure, Rosemary was immediately institutionalized where she remained for the rest of her life. She initially lived for several years at Craig House, a private psychiatric hospital an hour north of New York City.[19] In 1949, she moved to a house in Jefferson, Wisconsin, where she lived for the rest of her life on the grounds of the St. Coletta School for Exceptional Children (formerly known as "St. Coletta Institute for Backward Youth").[20]
Archbishop Richard Cushing had told her father about St. Coletta's, an institution for more than three hundred people with disabilities, and her father traveled to and built a private house for her about a mile outside St. Coletta's main campus near Alverno House which was designed for adults who needed lifelong care.[21] The nuns called the house "the Kennedy cottage".[22] Two Catholic nuns, Sister Margaret Ann and Sister Leona, provided her care along with a student and a woman who worked on ceramics with Rosemary three nights a week. Alan Borsari supervised the team and was able to call in specialists.[23] Rosemary had a dog and a car that could be used to take her for rides.[22]
In response to her condition, Rosemary's parents separated her from her family. Rose Kennedy did not visit her for twenty years.[14] Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. did not visit his daughter at the institution.[24] While her older brother John was campaigning for re-election for the Senate in 1958, the Kennedy family explained away her absence by claiming she was reclusive. At one point, a rumor circulated that Rosemary was too busy working as a teacher for disabled children to make public appearances. The Kennedy family did not publicly explain her absence until after John was elected as President of the United States in 1961. The Kennedys did not reveal that she was institutionalized because of a failed lobotomy but instead said that she was deemed "mentally retarded".[14][25]
Following the death of her father in 1969, Rosemary was occasionally taken to visit relatives in Florida and Washington, D.C., and to her childhood home on Cape Cod. By that time, Rosemary had learned to walk again but did so with a limp. She never regained the ability to speak clearly and her arm was palsied.[14] Her condition is credited as the inspiration for Eunice Kennedy Shriver to later found the Special Olympics,[14] although Shriver told The New York Times in 1995 that that was not exactly the case.[26] In 1983, the Kennedy family gave $1 million to renovate Alverno House. The gift added a therapeutic pool and enlarged the chapel.[23]


Rosemary Kennedy died from natural causes[27] on January 7, 2005, at the Fort Atkinson Memorial Hospital in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin,[28] at the age of 86, with her sisters Jean, Eunice, and Patricia, and brother Ted, by her side.[29] She was buried beside her parents in Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline, Massachusetts.[30]
She was the first child of Joseph and Rose Kennedy to die from natural causes.