Rosemary: The Forgotten Kennedy

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Rose Kennedy already had two children – Joe Jr. and John – when she gave birth to her first daughter on Friday 13th September 1918. The nurse who had been employed to attend her was in a quandary. She had sent for Mrs Kennedy’s doctor but labour was now advanced and Dr Good hadn’t yet arrived.

In those days, nurses were trained to deliver babies but, inexplicably, they were not permitted to do so. Nor were they allowed to administer  anaesthetics.

But the baby was coming and the nurse had only two choices. One option was that she could deliver the baby herself and suffer the consequences — and they could be severe especially if mother or baby were to die. Her only other option was to try to delay the birth until the doctor arrived. This is the choice she made.

She held Mrs Kennedy’s legs together to try to hold up the birth. But the baby’s head was arriving. The nurse pushed the head back into the birth canal until the doctor arrived two hours later.

Nevertheless the child was healthy

The little girl was named Rosemary. She was a peaceful baby and extremely attractive and sweet.  By the time she was one year old, Mr and Mrs Kennedy were already expecting their fourth child, Kathleen.  She was to be followed by Eunice, Patricia, Bobby, Jean and Edward.

But despite her growing brood, Mrs Kennedy realised that Rosemary didn’t advance at the same rate as her elder siblings. Indeed, eventually the younger ones overtook her development. But at first Mrs Kennedy thought that the boys were simply more advanced due to the fact that they were male and that it was probably just a difference in temperament.

It soon became evident though that Rose was ‘slow’ when compared to her siblings. But the Kennedys, thanks to the patriarch, were extremely competitive.  They always had to be winners and excel in everything they did. If one of the children failed to win – at school sports for example – the reasons for the failure was analysed. Rosemary just couldn’t keep up.

This terrified her parents. The family was becoming very prominent. How could they have what was then referred to as a ‘retarded’ daughter? For many years, they kept her condition a secret. Although Rosemary was without doubt less able than her ambitious and competitive siblings, she was still a charming girl.

The woman who worked as Mrs Kennedy’s private secretary for ten years believed that Rosemary was simply dyslexic. Some people today believe that she was what we would now describe as having ‘special educational needs’. Yet diaries that remain for her teenage years show that she enjoyed dancing and parties. She describes how she attended dress fittings and went to the cinema. In other words, she lived the life of a normal teenager of the time – and wrote about it in her diaries.

True, her handwriting was pretty dreadful but her spelling and grammar were both better than many people I know. Apparently when she was initially taught to write, she would have to be corrected because she wrote not from left to right, but from right to left.

This makes me wonder if Rosemary was naturally left-handed – many people who are instinctively write ‘the wrong way round’. She also had trouble distinguishing between left and right. (as a left-handed person, so do I). It’s known that in those days being left-handed was seen as being ‘wrong’. And today we know that forcing a left handed person to write with the wrong hand can cause various psychological problems. King George VI was a perfect example – being forced to write with his right hand is what caused his debilitating stutter.

Here,  I am reproducing a letter (complete with errors) that Rosemary wrote to her sister:

“I miss you very much, Didn’t we have fun together when I was home? I was so sorry that I had to leave all of you. so soon. Tell the girls to write to me as much as they can … I will see you quite soon, sweetheart. I’m dying to hear frm Mother and Daddy. Tell Mother to send me my box of candy that she gave me for Easter. I feel quite upset when I don’t hear from Mother tell her that. Write me a long long letter as soon as you can, darling. I know you will dear.”

Now is that really too bad for a thirteen year old? Sure, there’s a full stop where a comma should be, and vice versa. The ‘o’ is missing in the word ‘from’ and are a couple of missing commas. But this was a note written to her own sister, not a school test.

Meeting the rich and famous

As she grew older, along with her family Rosemary met the Pope, various cardinals and the then- president of the United States, F. D. Roosevelt. When her father was the ambassador in London, Rosemary and her sister Kathleen were presented to the  court of the King and Queen as debutantes.


Rosemary: The Forgotten Kennedy

Parental disapproval

Rosemary began to behave in ways that caused her parents to disapprove. Now that she was older, she sometimes had temper tantrums. These were often when she realised that she couldn’t take part in the activities that her siblings could. She became rebellious. Yet she was described as a wonderful charming girl with good looks and a womanly figure.

And it’s the latter that worried her father. Rosemary had taken to sneaking out alone at night or wandering off on her own. What if she was to become pregnant. Or contracted a disease?

Joe Kennedy had high hopes that his son, away fighting in the Second World War, would become president of the United States. This unstable sister could damage his chances.(In fact, Joe Jr. was killed on active service in 1944 but Joe Sr. transferred his political ambitions to his second son. John Fitzgerald Kennedy).


Joe Kennedy heard about a new operation that would ‘cure’ his daughter. He discussed this with his wife,  and their daughter Kathleen also investigated the procedure. Kathleen did not like what she discovered and reported to her mother that it certainly wasn’t advisable for Rosemary. She said ‘Oh Mother, no, it’s nothing we want for Rosemary’. Her mother agreed as she replied ‘I’m glad to hear that’.

But Joe took matters into his own hands. Despite the fact that in August 1941 the Journal of the American Medical Association warned that the use of the operation should be suspended until further research had been completed, Joe arranged for Rosemary to have a lobotomy that November.

Rosemary Kennedy’s lobotomy

This was a barbaric operation. (Don’t read this part if you are squeamish). The patient’s head was first shaved. Rosemary was then strapped to a table. A general aesthetic was not given – it was supposedly essential that the patient remained alert. Local anaesthesia was applied to each side of her head and holes drilled through the skull.

Instruments were then inserted and the doctors asked Rosemary to recite simple stories or sing songs. Then they could tell that the slicing away at her brain was not impairing her. After a few cuts though, Rosemary became incoherent. Then her voice stopped altogether.

The surgery had gone horribly wrong

From being a functioning girl of twenty three years old, Rosemary Kennedy had been transformed into someone who could no longer walk or talk. All the development that had taken place during her life had been wiped out. She needed help to eat, dress and clean herself.

The nurse who had prepared Rosemary for the operation and assisted during the procedure was so horrified that she gave up nursing immediately. She was haunted by the event for the rest of her life.

The forgotten Kennedy

Rose Kennedy was in the habit of writing regular letters to her other eight children. But after Rosemary’s failed lobotomy, she didn’t mention the girl – even in family letters – for twenty years. There are also no records to show that she visited Rosemary during those years.

Pressed by her biographer who compiled Rose’s memoirs in 1974, Rose would only say that Rosemary had had an unsuccessful operation. To some, she claimed that Rosemary had suffered an accident that caused her decline. Rose told her youngest daughter Jean, then thirteen, that Rosemary had moved to the Midwest and become a teaching assistant.

(Rose was equally evasive when Kathleen was killed in an air accident in 1948. She said that Kathleen had been flying back from the South of France with a group of friends after a holiday.In fact, Kathleen had been flying to France with her married lover).

Rosemary stayed for a short time at the hospital where she’d had the operation. She was then moved to a care home where she remained for seven years. Joe may have visited her there bur if so, it was only a few times. Arrangements for the bills and other payments were dealt with by his secretary. He mentioned her a few times in his letters but this stopped in 1944.

After the war Joe realised that Rosemary’s care home was too close to New York. With his eldest son killed in the war, he was now concentrating his political ambitions on his younger son, JFK. JFK had been elected to the House of Representatives and was expected to go far — unless anyone discovered he had an institutionalised sister. Rosemary was sent St Coletta out of the way in Wisconsin.

Run by Catholic nuns, the facility helped to teach Rosemary that she should not feel inferior to her siblings because she ‘had value in the eyes of God’. Joe Kennedy had a cottage built there for her and her full-time caregivers.

Gradually the rest of the Kennedy family became more and more prominent in society and in the news. Both John Kennedy and his sister Eunice (who was always closest to Rosemary) became advocates for improved care for those born with disabilities.

But when the press were writing about JFK and his family during his run for president they reported that Rosemary ‘was a childhood victim of spinal meningitis’ and was a patient in a nursing home. But a month after JFK had been voted in it was revealed that ‘the president elect has a mentally retarded sister’.

When her husband had a debilitating stroke, Rose Kennedy – now free from his control – started travelling and speaking out about’mental retardation’. After all, it was now public that Rosemary suffered from this. However, the fact that her condition was caused by the lobotomy was still a closely guarded secret.

At last Rose had a somewhat unsuccessful visit with Rosemary. But now she insisted that the nuns keep her well informed.  It was only now that Rosemary’s siblings found out where she was. Gradually, they invited her into their homes and Rosemary began to flourish once more, although she still lived permanently with her caregivers at St Coletta. She loved music and dancing. She loved enjoying her favourite foods. When she visited her siblings she would enjoy playing cards, swimming and watching TV. She attended Mass every day.


In 1984 matriarch Rose Kennedy had a stroke. She was confined to a wheelchair and gradually became senile. She remained in her home being attended to by staff. As her senility continued to develop, she was probably unaware that the story of Rosemary’s failed lobotomy became public in 1987. Her husband Joe had died in 1969 before the news of  the truth about Rosemary’s operation.

Rosemary herself died in 2005 at the age of eighty six, outliving her mother by ten years.

When her death was reported, it said that her brother Ted and her sisters Eunice, Jean and Patricia were with her.


Jackie Jackson, also known online as BritFlorida, is a highly experienced designer and writer. British born and now living in the USA, she specialises in lifestyle issues, design and quirky stories. You can see a wide range of articles here, or visit her website Tastes Magazine. See The Writer’s Door for more information.

Author: Jackie Jackson

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  1. I honestly believe that we are yet to find out more about the head of the Kennedy family and how he manipulated situations to suit himself. There are already many unsavoury facts known about him. Hopefully we will find out more in the future.

  2. The abuse of power and privilege shown by the Kennedy family towards one of their own illustrates the lengths some will go to rise to the top of the tree.

  3. Such a sad story. There was absolutely no valid reason to have had this procedure done to this poor girl. Joe Kennedy’s ambitions should never have played a part in this child’s destiny. First of all, holding a mother’s legs together until the doctor arrived, probably damaged this girl’s brain. Then even though she was a functioning, slow learner, she wasn’t good enough for Joe Kennedy to acknowledge as his daughter, so the lobotomy was performed to protect HIM. When everything went wrong, then they just “put her away,” as if she didn’t matter. What a shame, and it’s good that her siblings in later years at least acknowledged her and visited with her. But even then, they refused to tell the truth. “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” The truth would have been ever so much more acceptable, than the lies the entire family told.

  4. It makes me shudder every time I learn about another of the dreadful things used to be done without the informed consent of the patient back in those days.

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