In November 1941, Rosemary Kennedy—younger sister of future president John F. Kennedy and future senator Robert F. Kennedy, aunt of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.—was operated on by the maverick brain surgeon Walter Freeman. Her father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., arranged the surgery without letting Rosemary’s mother know beforehand. At the time, Rosemary was 23. She was a beautiful, vivacious young woman, but had always been the Kennedys’ problem child. In school, she’d struggled to keep up with her peers and talented siblings. As she grew older, she chafed against her strict religious upbringing, sometimes sneaking out to see boys on her own. Joseph was worried she might get pregnant and provoke a scandal that would set back his political ambitions for his sons. Looking for a quick and easy solution, Joe hit on the idea of giving his daughter a radical new surgery called a lobotomy.
Freeman drilled holes in both sides of Rosemary’s head and scraped away at her frontal lobes with a spatula. The procedure left her severely disabled for the rest of her life. She had been reduced to the mental level of a toddler and would never speak more than a few words again. Until her death in 2005, Rosemary would live in institutions, incapable of caring for herself.
What happened to Rosemary is sometimes referred to as a “botched” lobotomy—but the line separating a failed lobotomy from a successful one is hard to draw. Freeman advertised his services by saying he made the patient (usually female) docile and easier to manage—and that’s exactly what he delivered. Joseph Kennedy had wanted his daughter out of the way so she couldn’t cause the family any embarrassment; the procedure “worked” by amputating her will and personality. Rosemary’s response wasn’t uncommon. While some lobotomy patients retained the ability to speak and function, the operation typically induced severe mental regression.
In 1949 the Portuguese physician Egas Moniz—who was Freeman’s mentor—won the Nobel Prize in medicine for developing the lobotomy. Once it had the imprimatur of the medical establishment, the technique became popular. Tens of thousands of lobotomies were performed throughout America in subsequent years. Insane asylums throughout the country threw open their doors for brain surgeons to experiment on live subjects. Freeman even developed a quick and efficient way of doing lobotomies in which he didn’t even drill holes in the patients’ skull but simply inserted an ice pick through their eye sockets.