Rosemary Kennedy was the first daughter of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, born just one year after her brother John, who was elected President of the United States in 1960. Known as “Rosie” to members of her family, she had mild mental retardation and was described as slow, shy, and good natured as a girl. Institutionalization was a common response to intellectual disability at the time, but the Kennedys kept her at home. Rosemary lived with her family during most of her childhood, which included some very public years during the 1930s, when her father was U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Her days were full of dress fittings, outings, and other activities common to girls from prominent, wealthy families. At age 15, Rosemary was sent to the Sacred Heart Convent in Providence, Rhode Island because she was far behind her grade level at school. Thanks to her parents’ financial generosity, several teachers were assigned to work with her individually.
Rosemary began sneaking out of the convent at night in her early twenties. In 1941, when she was 23, her parents were told that a lobotomy—then considered a legitimate surgical approach to mental illness but rarely recommended for people with mental retardation—would help to control her behavior. It did not. The operation on the frontal lobes of Rosemary’s brain caused terrible damage. She stopped speaking, started mumbling, and stared at walls for hours on end. She was institutionalized in a private psychiatric hospital in New York for several years. In 1949, she was moved into a private house on the grounds at the Saint Coletta School for Exceptional Children in Jefferson, Wisconsin. Rosemary lived there for the remainder of her long life.
Even though Rosemary’s parents and siblings led very public lives, no one explained Rosemary’s absence from the family until after John Kennedy’s election in 1960. It was Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Rosemary’s younger sister, who shared the family secret with the world in 1962, when she wrote about her sister in The Saturday Evening Post.
Shriver’s decision to tell Rosemary’s story was brave, but what appeared in print was only partially true. Shriver did not mention the lobotomy or its horrible aftermath. Why not? Was she haunted by feelings of responsibility or shame for that fateful decision made by her parents? Was she protecting the Kennedy family? Whatever Shriver’s reasons for telling Rosemary’s story as she did, the result was heart-wrenching. “It fills me with sadness,” Eunice wrote, “to think this change might not have been necessary if we knew then what we know today.”
Rosemary Kennedy represented at once a family tragedy and an opportunity to prevent such tragedies from happening in the future. “We are just coming out of the dark ages in our handling of this serious national problem,” her sister wrote. The solutions Shriver outlined included deinstitutionalization, campaigns against public prejudice, and invigorated scientific research. Shriver also called on her fellow citizens to consider the abilities of children and adults with mental retardation, rather than only their disabilities, and incorporate them into every aspect of community life, from education and work to recreation. In later years, this vision would be called normalization.
Rosemary Kennedy herself was unable to benefit, but she became an important symbol of changing ideas about developmental disability in the United States.