Rosemary Kennedy And The Stigma Of Mental Illness

For most of her life, Rosemary Kennedy was a skeleton in the closet of her otherwise golden family. The third child of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, Rosemary was slow to crawl, walk, and speak; as she grew older it became clear that she mentally and intellectually operated at a much lower level than her peers and siblings.  

Although she was mentally slow, Rosemary was sweet natured throughout her childhood and the Kennedys went to great lengths to hide her apparent disabilities. But by her early twenties her disposition began to change and she became extremely volatile, swinging into violent fits of rage and temper tantrums. This was unacceptable for Joseph Kennedy, who had lofty ambitions for his family and would not tolerate weakness. In 1941 when Rosemary was 23 years old, the proud patriarch of the Kennedy clan authorized a prefrontal lobotomy to calm his daughter down and control her mood swings.    


Photograph by Richard Sears in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By 1941, lobotomies were a very new procedure and there were only a few documented cases. Rosemary’s lobotomy was performed by Dr. James W. Watts and Dr. Walter Freeman. In an interview with Ronald Kessler, the only interview he ever gave on the subject, Dr. Watts describes the procedure:  

“After Rosemary was mildly sedated, ‘We went through the top of the head,’ Dr. Watts recalled. ‘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. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman asked Rosemary questions. For example, he would ask her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or to sing "God Bless America" or to count backwards. As he cut, her pulse became more rapid, and her blood pressure rose. ‘We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded,’ Dr. Watts said. ‘I would make the incisions, and Dr. Freeman would estimate how much to cut as she talked. He talked to her. He would say that's enough.’ When she began to become incoherent, they stopped.” (Kessler, “Rosemary Kennedy’s Inconvenient Illness”)

  It became obvious right away that the lobotomy was a failure. It did stop Rosemary’s violent temper tantrums, but it also left her incontinent and unable to walk, with the mental abilities of a two-year-old. She was immediately institutionalized and spent the rest of her life at St Coletta School for Exceptional Children, where she was cared for by nuns until her death at age 86. After her botched lobotomy, whenever Joseph Kennedy was asked about Rosemary he would claim that she was away teaching mentally disabled children. No one in the Kennedy family ever spoke of her. Rosemary’s story was kept a secret until after President Kennedy was elected.   Because the Kennedy clan described Rosemary as mentally retarded or disabled, many reports referred to Rosemary in this way. This myth of mental retardation was so pervasive and convincing that it inspired Eunice Shriver, Rosemary’s younger sister, to found a summer camp for children with mental disabilities, which eventually evolved into the Special Olympics. Eunice’s efforts to sympathize with her sister are certainly commendable, but Rosemary Kennedy likely was not mentally retarded at all.    

Surgical instruments used by Dr. Watts and Dr. Freeman  Image courtesy of Wellcome Images

Surgical instruments used by Dr. Watts and Dr. Freeman
Image courtesy of Wellcome Images

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the IQ threshold for mental retardation as defined by most states is 75. By the age of nine, Rosemary Kennedy was able to accurately calculate that 428 x 32 = 13,696. Dr. Bertram Brown, who is a former director at the NIMH says “if she did division and multiplication, she was over an IQ of 75. [Rosemary] was not mentally retarded.”   What’s more likely and what most experts seem to agree upon is that Rosemary was not mentally handicapped, but that she was mentally ill and suffered from agitated depression. Even Dr. Watts, the surgeon who performed her botched lobotomy, never once referred to her as mentally retarded or disabled in his reports. In his opinion, Rosemary was a victim of depression. Many other doctors close to the family were in agreement.  

"Rosemary Kennedy at Court" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

"Rosemary Kennedy at Court" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

But in the case of the Kennedy family, mental retardation was deemed less embarrassing and more acceptable than mental illness. The highly political Kennedy clan could not afford to have a “crazy” person in their family—because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, this would have interfered with their political ambitions. Dr. Brown refers to the Kennedy’s public denial of Rosemary’s truth as “the biggest mental health coverup in history.”  

The tragic story of Rosemary Kennedy offers a glimpse as to what lengths people will go to in order to hide any hint mental illness. Even today, mental illness is stigmatized in society in a way that makes people who suffer from it feel shameful of their illness and reluctant to admit that they have a mental illness for fear of social discrimination and prejudice. This kind of social stigma not only leads to poorer quality of life, but it also hinders mental health treatments and has a detrimental effect on mental health outcomes. In 1999 the U.S. Surgeon General classified stigma as the biggest barrier to mental health care.  

While public awareness has made some strides in reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness, we must continue to work to eradicate the stigma further in order to improve global mental health. Rosemary’s story is a testament to the damage that social stigma can inflict upon victims of mental illness.  

By Baker131313 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Baker131313 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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