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Rosemary Kennedy and St. Coletta School for Exceptional Children of Wisconsin

Rosemary in the front, on the far right.
Rosemary in the front, on the far right. | Source
Rosemary Kennedy...such a beautiful lady.
Rosemary Kennedy...such a beautiful lady. | Source
St. Coletta of Wisconsin, home for adults and children with intellectual disabilities.
St. Coletta of Wisconsin, home for adults and children with intellectual disabilities. | Source

The Little Known And Sometimes Forgotten Kennedy...

Back when our boys were in college, from 2004 through 2008, one of our sons worked at a very special place. He worked at St. Coletta of Wisconsin, in one of the homes located on this special campus for developmentally disabled people. St. Coletta was once known as St. Coletta School For Exceptional Children. And even earlier than that, it had been called "St. Coletta Institute For Backward Youth." My, how times changed, and how people's attitudes and perceptions of special needs people have also changed.

Not too long after he began to work there assisting clients (as they were called), he came home one weekend and told me that the most famous resident of St. Coletta had passed away... and that she was a member of the Kennedy family. This sparked my curiosity about Kennedy family history, and made me wonder why I hadn't heard about this. I remember his stories about Rosemary Kennedy, and about how some of the workers there had actually met members of the Kennedy family.

Since he started working there in the Fall of 2004, and Rosemary Kennedy passed away on January 7, 2005 at the age of 86, he never personally met her. He did know where she had lived on the campus though, and had heard stories from other workers.


Some Background on Rosemary and the Kennedy Family

From doing some research, I found out that Rosemary Kennedy was born in Massachusetts on September 13, 1918. She was the third child, and she also was the first daughter to join the family for Rose Elizabeth Kennedy and Joseph Patrick Kennedy. She was named Rose Marie, since that was also her mother's name, but was known for most of her life as Rosemary. To the Kennedy family, she was called "Rosie." She was born just a year after her very famous brother, the former President of the United States John F. Kennedy.

Rosemary didn't seem to catch on to things as quickly as others in the family. In a family of super high achievers, with IQ's of around 130, it was estimated that Rosemary's IQ hovered around 90. For an adult to truly be mentally challenged, usually the standard IQ measurement is 70 to 75. But in a super high achieving family such as this, she was considered to be "slow." It was also a theory that her "slowness" was due to circumstances surrounding her birth. It was said that her birth was "delayed" by a nurse due to the doctor arriving late. It was also thought that she was deprived of oxygen for a while during her birth.

When Rosemary was 15 years old, she was sent to the Sacred Heart Convent in Rhode Island for education, where two nuns along with a special teacher worked with her in a separate classroom. She was able to read, write, do math problems, including multiplication and division... she just wasn't quite up to the level of the other Kennedy's. She felt like she was a huge disappointment to her parents, whom she had always wanted so much to please. She put forth amazing effort, and grew increasingly frustrated as she entered adolescence.

She was a blossoming young woman whose life up until the age of 22 was filled with special occasions such as tea dances, outings to the opera, fittings for dresses and other social occasions. She was able to write about things happening to her in her life, in a diary that was later released in the 1980s. A biographer that wrote about Rosemary described her as "beautiful, with a gorgeous smile" and a very sweet personality that endeared her to just about everyone she met.

How did it go from that description of Rosemary Kennedy, to a life made terribly wrong which required her to be institutionalized for the rest of her natural life? As it turned out, she became increasingly frustrated in her late teenage years with her inability to achieve as much as the rest of the Kennedy's... and she had outbursts that were thought later to be due to frustration, as well as hormonal changes in early adulthood. It seems that the "outbursts" were undesirable to the family, and something needed to be done to stop them.

She was still being educated in the convent, and along with the outbursts, it seemed she would decide to leave the convent at night. The family feared that she might become pregnant or otherwise embarrass them, so in 1941, when she was only 23 years old, in the prime of her life, doctors told her father about a new surgical procedure that would drastically calm her outbursts and curb the family's embarrassment.


The Lobotomy Procedure and the Effects it Had on Rosemary's Life

Why in the world Joseph Kennedy ever agreed to this procedure has defied understanding for years. The procedure was experimental in nature, called a frontal lobotomy. And when successful, the person would become meek and more calm. This was a neuro-surgical procedure and from what I read in the doctor's detailed description of the procedure, it was performed on Rosemary with a piece of equipment resembling "a butter knife." At this time, few lobotomies had ever been performed, on anyone.

And you think that's crazy, the procedure was further described as making a surgical incision near the front of her skull, then this "butter knife" was used by "swinging it up and down" to cut brain tissue. She was partially awake during the procedure, and they would ask her to recite things that should have been easy for her to recite from memory, and when she became incoherent, they stopped.

After the botched surgical procedure, Rosemary lived for a few years in a private psychiatric hospital in New York, then eventually was transferred to St. Coletta of Wisconsin in 1949. There she was placed into a home and had a car available to her (which of course, had to be driven by someone else) and she did have a dog as well. It was a private home, built just for Rosemary, and she had two nurses to care for her around the clock, and a lady that would sometimes work with her to help her to create ceramics. She was incontinent and stared at walls for hours. This was a place for adults that would require lifelong care, which Rosemary now did require.

For the most part, she was detached from the rest of her family, although some members did make an effort to become closer to her later in life. Her Mother did visit her, as did her sister Eunice. From everything I read, her mother was away when the botched lobotomy was done, and her father never did visit her during the time that she lived at St. Coletta. Her father did, however, send a letter to St. Coletta in 1958 saying that he was grateful to them for caring for Rosemary allowing the rest of the family to "go about their life's work."

A lot of speculation was done saying that most probably the reason for the lobotomy was not that she was "slow" but that it was more likely that she had psychiatric problems, partly due to frustration over being able to "keep up with" this high achieving family. And in those days, any kind of psychiatric problem or "slowness" was considered to be "shameful" and would normally be "hidden" from the public.

I am very glad that things have changed quite a bit since those days, I feel terrible for Rosemary, however. To be imprisoned in that way, inside of a body that was rendered incapacitated by a terrible and archaic "surgical" procedure. I think this was a travesty. I'm so thankful that there is much more awareness in the present day of intellectual disabilities, and for wonderful organizations such as the "Special Olympics" which was created in part by members of the Kennedy family (to their credit).

And I know my son enjoyed the time he spent working at St. Colletta with these very special people. They do wonderful things there in such an outstanding, caring and loving way... I used to tell my son I thought he had the patience of a saint sometimes. And I do remember the day he brought two of his clients over to our home to meet us, what a wonderful experience, and one that I will remember always. He tried to get them out in public, he'd take them to stores to shop, to a swimming pool, just to give them experiences that he thought they would enjoy. And of course, I do remember the time he came home and said that Rosemary had passed away at a local hospital near St. Coletta in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.

I guess we can only hope on the day she passed away that she "flew up to heaven" on the angel's wings, and is now free from the prison she was in for most of her life. And I do believe there is a special place in heaven for intellectually and physically challenged people and also for those that work closely with them to care for them, to help them to live better lives while they are here. It certainly is not a job that everyone could do!

About the Author

I have been a freelance writer since 2010 for websites like HubPages, Textbroker, BlogMutt and Constant Content. I was also a newspaper writer for a high school newspaper, and I wrote magazine articles for a country music magazine called Neon Rainbow from September 2001 through June of 2003.

Comments 17 comments

lj gonya profile image

lj gonya 4 years ago

I had always known about her but didn't know the details, and I didn't know she had died so recently. What a waste. How sad. And yes, your son does have the patience of a saint.


Lisa HW profile image

Lisa HW 4 years ago from Massachusetts

This is a long comment, but it's a serious subject that I think still needs discussion, even if nothing can be done for Rosemary Kennedy at this point.

Having grown up in Massachusetts and heard about Rosemary's story quite a bit, I've never particularly been one to think a whole lot of either the "clueless" and conscience-less, overbearing, father who was capable of damaging his own daughter's brain (whether that was because she was "acting out" or actually "slow". How "slow" is anyone who is capable of learning, reading, doing math, etc.?

What's almost as disturbing as Rosemary's story, though (although certainly not as "dramatic" or extreme), is that while her story took place in a different era; there are ways in which people today aren't much better about not thinking there's "something wrong" with young women (or women they think of as young) who won't/don't do what they think they should.

I've never been "short of IQ points", and I've always been one to to be independent minding and "not interested" in who thinks what about something I am or do. Before I left my marriage, it had never been a huge problem that people who thought I ought to do things their way would think, "She smart in SOME ways but 'has issues' in other ways," or else "...isn't very mature and responsible". It always irked the heck out me because "the world" tends to either see women as "dumb" or as "smart, but only in some ways". The "wrong" kind of girls/women (those who have a mind of their own, a strong resistance to being subordinated to others, etc.) will often be viewed as "off", "damaged", or otherwise "less than OK".

When I left my marriage (to the disapproval of a number of people who thought I was "out of my mind" for doing what they didn't understand), I found myself being "accussed" of, in fact, being "out of my mind". Worse, I found myself being picked up by authorities of Commonwealth of Massachusetts for a mental health. Four hours later I was allowed to leave, without a full evaluation. I was incredibly angry (needless to say), but I was able to stay calm and not give anyone any reasons to think I was "unstable" while I was there. I shudder to think of what would have happened if I've gotten upset or otherwise lost control. For all I know, I would have ended up being held there, medicated, and unable to think clearly with the clear head and good mind that has always served me well. I never got anyone from "the system" to apologize for any of the horror, or to admit the mistake they made. When people's professional reputation and egos are on the line those who are arrogant enough to so quickly assume someone else is "out of her mind" are also too arrogant to admit their own mistakes. A couple of "non-system" people in my life did apologize and say that's not what they wanted to happen.

Rosemary's story is a sickening horror story that, as far as lobotomies go, people don't have to worry a whole lot about these days. It can, however, be in the nature of some people to be aggressive, overbearing, and egotistical enough to make some pretty sick judgments when it comes to girls and young women who "won't buckle under and do what they want they want them to"; when the girl or woman is unfortunate enough to be dealing with someone who believes s/he has the right to try to control her.

Rosemary's horror story might help some girls and women today by inviting discussion about how many people try to control some girls and women (especially the kind who "aren't in the market" to be controlled by someone else). We may not need to worry about lobotomies on women these days, but we really do need (more than a whole lot of people, including women, realize) to be very worried about the archaic attitudes towards girls and women that still exist in a lot of people today. ("Old Man Kennedy" probably actually DID think there was something wrong with his daughter. That's the scary thing. She wasn't, apparently, a "clone" of him; and a lot of egotistical people think anyone who doesn't think like they do must "have something wrong with him".


KathyH profile image

KathyH 4 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada Author

Thanks, lj gonya! So glad you were able to learn some things from this, I did too from writing it! :) Thanks so much for reading and commenting!


KathyH profile image

KathyH 4 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada Author

Wow, Lisa HW, you have written a wonderful commentary here! I was totally riveted by reading your comment from the opening line to the last line. I'm so sorry that happened to you, and I believe you brought up some wonderful points here. As I was writing this, I found myself becoming increasingly angry over the very unfair way this woman was treated, and how it ruined what was left of her life. And I do believe you are on to something when you say that this type of thinking does sometimes still go on today in the way that women and girls are treated.

Thank you for you excellent, well written and very poignant comment.


Lisa HW profile image

Lisa HW 4 years ago from Massachusetts

KathyH, thank you. I wasn't sure if I should add "another spin" to the importance of Rosemary Kennedy's story, but (more than what happened to me) I have three grown kids. I can't even imagine any parent ever, ever, doing such a thing (or a whole lot of things that are a lot less than that). Odd as it may sound, I've always felt very sorry for that man's and his wife's children. They say, "judge not" - but I'm sorry. I judge sometimes.


always exploring profile image

always exploring 4 years ago from Southern Illinois

Your story is very interesting. I knew the Kennedys had a child that was considered slow. I felt sad reading her life story, what a shame. I can't imagine allowing a lobotomy performed on a child of mine. Thank you for sharing. Enjoyed.


KathyH profile image

KathyH 4 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada Author

You're welcome, always exploring! :) So glad you found this interesting! :) I can't imagine ever allowing this to be done to one of my children either! Thank you for reading and commenting!


KathyH profile image

KathyH 4 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada Author

Hi Lisa HW, I'm so glad you DID add another spin to this story! I'm like you, I cannot imagine any parent ever doing something like this to their child either... ever! Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments! :)


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

I have several biographies of the Kennedys, and therefore knew about Rosemary's lobotomy. But none of those bios - surprise? - mention she could read, write, and do math problems. An IQ of 90 was about average for society debs of the day, so Rosemary would've been considered quite "normal" had she not had the misfortune to be born a Kennedy.

Joe Kennedy would never be a candidate for Father of the Year, but IMHO neither would Rose be a candidate for Mother of the Year. She was as much an absent parent as Joe; the children were basically raised by "the help" until they could be packed off to boarding school. To me, the scariest aspect of this family was its mantra of "Be THE best", NOT "Do YOUR best". Second place was NOT an option.

In a family less obsessed with perfection in ALL things, I think Rosemary would've been quite happy AND been loved and accepted for who and what she was.

Now that I know she wasn't illiterate, I have to wonder why Joe and Rose, being so devoutly Catholic with more money than God, didn't steer her into a nunnery where she could live out her days in peace.

I've always thought Joe Kennedy must've done something especially horrible in a past life and the tragedies that befell his children were karmic payback. Joe Jr. was to be the Son-Who'd-Be-President but died in WWII; Kathleen married the future Duke of Devonshire (and thereby the largest fortune in England) but never became Duchess because Billy was also killed in the war, then she died in a plane crash not long after. We know what happened to Rosemary. JFK DID become President, but not for an entire term and not until after Joe had suffered a massive stroke and couldn't enjoy his "coup" over the Brahmins of Boston. Chappaquiddick squelched Ted's chances for the Oval Office, Bobby was assassinated.

So much for having "more money than God". Very sad that Rosemary suffered the most and the longest.


KathyH profile image

KathyH 4 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada Author

So true, Jama Genee, and it is sad that Rosemary lived to an old age, but what was her quality of life? I had exactly the same thoughts such as you when you said "had she not had the misfortune to be born a Kennedy".

In any other family, she would have been much more accepted and loved, instead of being made to feel inferior in this hyper-high achieving family. I cannot imagine her frustration, and I also read that it was thought at the time that what she really suffered from was depression over "not fitting in" with this family. Because she acted in an aggressive way, it was thought to be best that something be done about that behavior. I just found it bizarre that the answer they came up with was a frontal lobotomy. How about trying a medication for depression instead (unless those medications didn't exist back then, this was in the 1940s). Then to claim later that she had it done because she was "slow" to begin with. From what I read, doing a frontal lobotomy on someone due to their being "slow" is medical malpractice.

You might be onto something with the Karma thoughts, I hadn't really looked at it that way! Thank you for your very thoughtful comment! :)


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Gee, I can't imagine why Rosemary could possibly get depressed from "not fitting in" in such a hyper-achieving family... (You know that was meant sarcastically, I hope.)

Seriously, I don't believe real anti-depressants existed in the 1940s. Instead, it was common to medicate patients into Zombie mode with high doses of depressants, and if that didn't "calm them down", use more extreme measures like straight jackets or frontal lobotomies.

And I totally agree that doing a frontal lobotomy on someone already deemed "slow" *would* constitute medical malpractice!


KathyH profile image

KathyH 4 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada Author

I sure do know you meant that sarcastically! I have a tendency to be sarcastic sometimes, too! ;) I didn't think antidepressants existed back then, and I think that drugs like Valium were used to put folks in "zombie" mode. Thanks so much for commenting! :)


Angie Jardine profile image

Angie Jardine 4 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

Thanks for the interesting - if gruesome - hub, Kathy.

I did not know about Rosemary Kennedy and it made for real fury-making reading. I get so angry when I hear of people, usually women, being medicated or hidden away so that their family can go on looking good. Our own Royal family had also hidden a few 'slow' members of their family in institutions etc.

I can remember a friend of mine when I was a child having a mother who was in a local 'mental' hospital ... not because she had any mental problems but simply because her family put her there because she got pregnant out of wedlock! That happened in the 1950s. The child she had was my friend and she was brought up by her grandmother ... her mother never made it out of the asylum.

Our world may often seem to have horrific elements in it ... but it does usually treat people with learning difficulties or people who are not quite as quick-witted as others with more consideration than in times past.

Your son sounds like a real gem, BTW ... you must be so proud of him.


KathyH profile image

KathyH 4 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada Author

Thank you so much, Angie! :) How terrible to be put in a mental hospital for an out of wedlock pregnancy... wow! The 1940s and 1950s were definitely a different time. I'm thankful that things seem to have gotten somewhat better.

And we are very proud of our son, he is still a very patient person today, and he needs that patience with a three year old daughter! ;) Thanks so much for reading and commenting! :)


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

re Angie Jardine's comment: There have been several instances of long-time inmates of mental institutions being found to be quite sane, having been placed there because they were an embarrassment to his/her otherwise "picture perfect" family. But I'd never heard of girls being locked away forever simply for getting pregnant out of wedlock. That's just barbaric!

I should mention my dad had a cousin who spent most of her life in mental hospitals from the time she was a teenager. Originally because she was a "wild child" once she hit puberty, but later it was discovered she was perfectly sane, but CHOSE to stay locked up because (at the time) it was the only way she could be safe from her widowed father who'd been sexually abusing her since she was a small child (after her mother died). It sounds rather sad, but according to the staff at the various facilities she was in over the years, she was quite happy and would only pretend to be "insane" when doctors wanted to release her!


tirelesstraveler profile image

tirelesstraveler 4 years ago from California

My mother left Boston in 1939 and never looked back. She was a nurse and was always angry with the Kennedy's behavior. An IQ of 90 is considered normal and of course they now know IQ can be increased.


KathyH profile image

KathyH 4 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada Author

That's so true, tirelesstraveler, it was such a shame that Rosemary was treated the way she was by this family. I don't blame your Mom one bit. I think a lot of people felt that way about what was done to this woman. Thanks so much for reading and commenting! :)

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