The Tragic Lobotomy of Rosemary Kennedy

The life of Rosemary Kennedy, the eldest sister of President John F. Kennedy, is a tragic and often overlooked chapter in the Kennedy family history. 

Rosemary’s life has been overshadowed by her brother’s fame and significant accomplishments and the fact she was considered the “problem child” of the family. 

Her parent’s efforts to “fix” her ultimately led to a tragic outcome and her becoming the family’s secret shame. 

Rosemary Kennedy

Rosemary Kennedy’s Birth Complications

Rosemary was the third child of Joseph and Rose Kennedy and appeared at first as a healthy baby. 

However, as she grew older, it became apparent that she was developing differently than her siblings. She had difficulty with language and was prone to outbursts and aggressive behavior, which caused concern for her parents.

Rosemary may have suffered from a birth complication known as a hypoxic-ischemic injury, which occurs when the brain doesn’t receive enough oxygen during the birthing process. This injury can lead to developmental delays and behavioral issues, which may have contributed to Rosemary’s struggles.

Another theory that some experts also support is that Rosemary suffered from congenital hyperbilirubinemia, a genetic disorder that causes high levels of bilirubin in the blood, leading to jaundice. 

This condition can cause brain damage, which could have been the cause of Rosemary’s condition.

It is suggested that Rosemary’s birth complications may have been caused by a nurse instructing her mother, Rose Kennedy, to tighten her legs and push her back during delivery. 

This position, known as the “Knee-Chest” position, can increase the chances of cord compression during delivery, leading to oxygen deprivation in the baby.

Attempts to Treat Rosemary Kenndy

Rosemary’s condition was apparent from a young age, and her parents, Joseph and Rose Kennedy struggled to find ways to help her. 

They enrolled Rosemary in various schools and programs. She attended a special school for children with developmental delays, but her behavior continued to be a problem, and she was often expelled or asked to leave.

The Kennedy family also sought out help from various doctors and specialists, but their recommendations were often conflicting and ineffective. 

Some doctors suggested that Rosemary’s condition was due to a lack of discipline and recommended strict behavioral therapy, while others suggested that her issues were more severe and recommended institutionalization.

Despite these attempts to help, Rosemary’s condition worsened, and her father, Joseph Kennedy, believed that her issues were a reflection of his own failures as a parent. As a result, he became increasingly frustrated with her behavior and the lack of progress in her treatment. 

This led him to make the fateful decision to arrange for her to undergo a lobotomy, a surgical procedure that would change her life forever.

The Lobotomy of Rosemary Kennedy

To “cure” her, Rosemary’s father organized a lobotomy. This controversial surgical procedure involved cutting into the brain to change behavior. 

The lobotomy was performed in 1941 when Rosemary was 23 years old by Dr. Walter Freeman, one of the most prominent lobotomists in the United States at the time.

The idea behind the procedure was that by cutting these connections between the frontal lobes and the other brain sections, the individual’s problematic behavior would be “cured.” 

The procedure was often used to treat individuals with schizophrenia, depression, and intellectual disability, despite the lack of scientific evidence to support its effectiveness.

After the Lobotomy

The lobotomy performed on Rosemary Kennedy left her permanently incapacitated, unable to walk or speak properly and her cognitive abilities severely impacted. 

Rosemary was sent to an institution in Wisconsin called St. Coletta’s, where she spent the next 60 years of her life.

She was isolated from the outside world and had limited interaction with her family. Her father, Joseph Kennedy, visited her occasionally, but the rest of her family only saw her infrequently.

Rosemary’s condition was kept a secret from the public, and the Kennedy family did not publicly acknowledge her lobotomy until the 1970s. 

The family’s silence on the matter highlights the shame and stigma surrounding intellectual disability and mental illness during the mid-20th century.

Pressure on the Kennedy family

The pressure placed on the Kennedy family, particularly the children, to uphold a certain image and reputation was immense. The family prioritized their reputation and political aspirations over the well-being of the individual family members. 

Joseph Kennedy, Rosemary’s father, had political aspirations for his children, and he believed that Rosemary’s behavioral issues were a reflection of his own failures as a parent.

His treatment of Rosemary Kennedy reflected this pressure. 

The Kennedy Family at Hyannis Port, 1931.

This pressure also impacted the other Kennedy children, who were expected to be successful and accomplished and not show any signs of weakness or vulnerability. 

John F. Kennedy suffered numerous health conditions throughout his life and was under constant pressure to conceal them, as they were seen as detrimental to his political career.

The family’s silence on the matter highlights the shame and stigma surrounding intellectual disability and mental illness during the mid-20th century.

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