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Brookline, Massachusetts (JFK+50) The third child and first daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. Rose Marie “Rosemary” Kennedy* was born here in Brookline ninety-eight years ago today, September 13 1918.  Biographer Kate Clifford Larson calls Rosemary “The Hidden Kennedy Daughter.”

According to Ms. Larson, because the family physician, Dr. Frederick Good, was delayed in getting to the Kennedy home, the attending nurse held the baby back into the birth canal but otherwise the birth was normal after his arrival.

As Rosemary grew older, however, her development was described as “markedly different” from her siblings.  She was not able to compete “physically or intellectually.”

In 1924, Rosemary was not promoted to 1st grade and her teacher told her mother that her child was “retarded.”  Although she entered 1st grade in 1925, she was held back the following year.  It wasn’t long until Rosemary was taken out of school and assigned private tutors.

In 1929, Rosemary was enrolled in boarding school in Pennsylvania where she struggled academically.  She attended three different schools in a five year period.  Despite her academic problems, Rosemary had matured into a “lovely young woman, full-figured, poised and sociable.”  

After a stay with her family in London, she returned to Bronxville, NY in late May 1940 where she “receded rapidly” and became “quickly…agitated.”  Her father had subsequently learned about a new psycho-surgery being performed at George Washington University Hospital and met with Dr. Walter Freeman, a psychiatrist, in the fall of 1941. Dr. James Watts, a surgeon, was also consulted.**

The new procedure, known as a labotomy, was to be performed on Rosemary. Two holes were bored into her temple and nerve endings were cut from the frontal lobes to the rest of the brain.  After the fourth cut, Rosemary, who was awake, became incoherent.

Dr. Watts describes the surgery as follows…

“We went through the top of the head.  I think she was awake.  She had a mild tranquilizer.  We put an instrument inside (her brain).”

Kate Clifford Larson describes Rosemary emerging from the procedure “almost completely disabled,” unable to walk or talk.  She would never again have the full use of her limbs.

There is good reason Ms. Larson refers to Rosemary as “the hidden Kennedy daughter.”  Her brothers and sisters were told very little about what had happened.  Rosemary was sent to a private psychiatric facility and in 1929 to Saint Coletta School for Exceptional Children*** in Wisconsin.  She would spend the next sixty years of her life there.

Kate Clifford Larson tells us, however, that there is a silver lining to this terrible Kennedy family tragedy.  Once JFK became President, Eunice Kennedy Shriver persuaded her brother to establish the Committee on Mental Retardation and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

In December 1962, President Kennedy presented the first Kennedy Foundation awards in mental retardation and in 1963 signed the Maternal and Child Health and Mental Retardation Planning Amendments along with the Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health  Centers Construction Act.

After JFK’s death, Eunice established Camp Shriver and the Special Olympics.

Eunice said…

“I believe Rosemary…had more to do with the brilliance of (JFK’s) presidency than anyone understands.  It was Rosemary’s influence that sensitized him–more than anyone single individual.  Rosemary made the difference.”

*Rose Marie Kennedy (1918-2005) was born in Brookline, MA.  Diaries published in the 1980s indicate she attended operas, tea dances and social events. Rosemary died at the age of 86 with sisters Jean, Eunice and Patricia & brother Ted, by her side.  She was buried at Holyhood Cemetery next to her parents in Brookline.

**Dr. Freeman continued to perform labotomies for the next 20 years, sometimes 20 or more a day.

***St. Coletta School was founded in 1904 when 10 developmentally disabled students enrolled under direction of Father George Meyer.   In 1983, the Kennedy family made a gift in honor of Mrs. Rose Kennedy’s 93rd birthday to facilitate a program to serve as a model for aging persons with mental retardation.

St. Coletta of Wisconsin’s stated goal is “to be the premier provider of support services for adults with developmental disabilities and other challenges throughout their lifespan.


It was solely Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.’s decision to have the labotomy performed on Rosemary.  Kate Clifford Larson writes that among the alternatives Mr. Kennedy’s choice, a “still very experimental” labotomy, was a radical one.

I want to add this personal note.  My Uncle Willard Elmer White was retarded. As I grew up, my grandparents, Harris and Maude White, provided him the best of care.  After they passed on, my Uncle Earl White continued that care. 

Willard, despite his disability, was a very happy person.  He worked alongside his siblings at White Produce Company in Knoxville, TN.  He knew he was loved and he loved his family.  Like Rosemary, Willard was a very positive influence on our lives.  


“Rosemary, The Hidden Kennedy Daughter,” by Kate Clifford Larson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston and New York, 2015.

St. Coletta School, www.stcolettawi.org/

“The hidden–but quietly influential–life of Rosemary Kennedy,” October 3, 2015, MPRNEWS, www.mprnews.org/

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