Joseph and Rose Kennedy’s third child and first daughter was born in Bostonin 1918, just two months before the end of World War I, while an epidemic of Spanish flu was raging. Inundated with flu patients, the attending doctor, Dr Good, arrived late and, although it was not a difficult birth, the midwife held the child back until he arrived (as she had been trained to do): ostensibly to ensure a 'modern delivery' but in reality more likely to ensure that he received his fee.

In contrast to her brothers, Rosemary (Rosie to family and friends) was slow to reach all the usual milestones, such as crawling, walking and speaking, was poorly coordinated and described as 'painfully slow.' The family thought her difficulties might have been caused by oxygen starvation at birth – although they blamed the midwife, not the doctor.

A devoted mother, Rose spent hours playing with her daughter, teaching her to write, spell and count. She also hired a succession of teachers and so, despite her apparent intellectual disabilities, by the time she was nine Rosemary was good at arithmetic.

This pretty, green-eyed, shy child grew into a beautiful young woman who, as a teenager, took part in most family activities; going to dances, concerts and other events; even being presented to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, along with her mother and younger sister Kathleen, when her father became the US Ambassador to Britain.

But as the war clouds gathered Rose and Kathleen returned to the US while Rosie and her father stayed in the UK, where Rosie lived in a convent and helped out in the Montessori training center it was attached to, reading stories to the children and seeing her father only occasionally.

Rosie doted on her father, but, as the odd one out in a family of extremely high achievers, Joseph found her difficult to tolerate. Thus he often criticized her slowness and lack of self-awareness and even returned to the US without telling her, leaving her to follow later with her companion.

Unwittingly Rosie was to embroil her family in one of the most major decisions of their lives. By her early twenties the formerly placid and easygoing teenager had become increasingly assertive with violent mood swings which the family found difficult to manage. So, as the boys went off to join the Navy, Rosie was packed off to another convent, from which she soon learnt to sneak out at night; bringing the fear of pregnancy, disease or worse to her staunchly Roman Catholic family. Joseph sought advice from some of the top doctors and was advised that a relatively new surgery would help calm Rosie's mood swings.

That surgery?

A lobotomy.

Her mother asked Kathleen to find out more about this procedure and she, in turn, asked a reporter, John White, who after investigating told her that the results 'were not good' and that afterward the patients were 'gone as a person, just gone.' Rose had always refused to have Rosie institutionalized and when Kathleen told her the possible consequences they both agreed Rosie shouldn't have the operation. Unfortunately Joseph ignored their concerns.

The lobotomy went ahead, Dr Freemanbeingassisted by neurosurgeon Dr James Watts. Years later in an interview with Ronald Kessler, author of The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded, Dr Watts described how he cut while Dr Freeman asked Rosemary questions, using her responses to estimate how far they should cut. She began to become incoherent. They stopped.

Too late! The operation had horrific consequences. Rosie was permanently incapacitated. Heart-wrenching. Left incontinent and totally unable to care for herself she spent the remainder of her long life in an institution, finally dying in 2005 at the age of 86.

Eunice, the fifth Kennedy and third daughter, was closest of all to Rosie. Devastated by events and deeply religious, she felt the operation betrayed all that she held most dear: 'the sacredness of life, the sanctity of family, the deep worth of every human being.'

Rose too regretted it for the rest of her life, while the children's nurse Luella Hennessey blamed Joseph Senior for the tragedy, believing he chose to ignore the possible consequences in his search for a cure. Maybe.

Or was he simply at the end of his tether and clutched the lifeline offered by Dr Freeman without fully understanding what the consequences might be? We shall never really know, although clearly Dr Freeman was an extremely persuasive man, as demonstrated by the vast number of lobotomies he performed.

What were Rosie's original problems? Certainly she showed some signs of developmental delay. And yet, accounts conflict, some people suggesting she was moderately mentally retarded, which seems belied by her aptitude for math (a dichotomy which has echoes of ASD) while, in contrast, others believed that despite her slowness she was mentally ill.

Whatever the truth, the outcome was horrendous – for how do you ever come to terms with something like that? And yet intriguingly Rosie was the inspiration behind several charities; indirectly bequeathing an enormous legacy to the world.

Author's Bio: 

Stella Waterhouse is a writer and therapist who has worked children and adults with a variety of learning differences since the late 1960’s.

In the mid 1980s Stella worked at a residential home for approximately 40 adults with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD), where she became Deputy Principal.

In the 1990s Stella set out to write a short book on the role of anxiety in autism., which at that time received little attention. Her research led her to investigate the causes of ASD as well as role of sensory disorders - particularly those of an auditory or visual nature.

The original 'short' book evolved into a much larger project and has so far spawned two full length books including A Positive Approach to Autism - Jessica Kingsley Publishers, plus a series of short books for parents and teachers all of which are currently available as e-books.

Stella is currently completing her new series The Autism Code. For more information on Stella and her products please visit