The forgotten Kennedy: the story of Rosemary


Rich in both the monetary and social sense, the Kennedy family is one of the greatest symbols of the American dream. Roots firmly planted in the realm of politics, there has been a Kennedy in an elected federal position from 1947 to 2011. Joseph and Rose Kennedy gave birth to a president of the United States, two U.S. ambassadors, a lieutenant governor, two state legislators and one mayor. However, there was one member of the Kennedy family that even the most enthused American historians wouldn’t recognize; Rosemary Kennedy, the sister of John, Ted, and Robert Kennedy, is almost never mentioned when it comes to the members of the family. While one may see this as an indication that she was simply an unimportant person, Rosemary’s legacy is one of heartbreak, tragedy and abuse and serves as a constant, grim reminder of how intellectual disabilities are handled in our nation.

Rosemary Kennedy’s beginning was difficult; born on September 18, 1918, she suffered from a severe loss of oxygen at birth, which would cause her to become intellectually disabled. Rosemary’s IQ was said to be around 60 or 70, placing her mental age at around 8-12. Though Rosemary worked hard to impress her parents through her studies, the Kennedys saw her as an embarrassment who didn’t fit the “Kennedy” image. The family would often times lie about her intellectual problems, citing that she was studying to be a Kindergarten teacher. Occasionally, an interview with the elusive Kennedy would be requested, but the family would quickly decline; instead, Rosemary would be instructed to copy down a statement for the press that she could not comprehend. Despite this, Rosemary was presented to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth when her father served as the U.S. ambassador to the U.K., Rosemary studied the elaborate curtsey she was to perform before the court for hours. Both biographers and press knew little about her, but cited her as being the most beautiful of her sisters.

Rosemary’s eagerness and desire to please and impress eventually faded as she realized that she was simply unwanted by the family. Her behavior became volatile and unpredictable as she became a more rebellious, assertive person. The family, desiring her to be more like her goal-oriented, ambitious siblings, decided that something had to be done to protect the Kennedy family’s reputation. At the age of 23, Rosemary was set to undergo a lobotomy: a dangerous, unpredictable and, at the time, experimental procedure. Her father did not inform her mother until after the procedure was performed. Rosemary was strapped to an operating table, and, while still conscious, lobotomized and asked various questions to judge the progress.

According to one of the doctors, “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.”

As she answered them, they sliced away at her brain, scraping off pieces until she was incoherent. The procedure was a massive failure, and Rosemary’s mental age decreased from 8 to 2; she was rendered unable to speak and walk.

The Kennedy family’s desire to rid themselves of Rosemary had finally reached its peak at this point, and she was immediately institutionalized and forgotten about by the family; her mother didn’t visit her for twenty years and her father never did. The family told the press that Rosemary was teaching intellectually disabled children, refusing to let them know the monstrosities they had committed to an innocent woman. The only member of the family that ever showed an interest in Rosemary was her sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who would go on to create the Special Olympics in her memory.

Despite Rosemary’s horrific condition, she would go on to live until the age of 86, and died in 2005 due to natural causes. Few people even knew of Rosemary’s existence and, therefore, few knew of her death. Rosemary’s story was to never be told for fear of tainting the reputation of the Kennedy family, and she was to be forgotten, just as her family intended.

Though Rosemary has long since passed, it’s imperative that we never forget her. The atrocities committed by both the Kennedy family and the doctors who performed the failed operation must be forever remembered as a grim reminder of something we can not let happen again.

Yes, it’s uncomfortable to remember the cruelty faced by an innocent woman, but we must if we are to fix these fatal flaws in our society. We have to recognize them first. Maybe someday our world will learn how to treat those with intellectual disabilities with respect and care and Rosemary will finally be able to rest in peace. In the meantime, however, we must fight for those with intellectual disabilities.

“Treatment for people with disabilities and mental illness in prewar America reveals a profoundly ignorant medical establishment and educational community.” —Kate Clifford Larson, Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter