Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Radical Medical Technology

Unless you have been on an island somewhere lately, you probably know that Eunice Kennedy Shriver has been hospitalized for the past few days and died this morning at age 88.  The achievement she is most well-known for, of course, is founding the Special Olympics.  She often cited her sister Rosemary as the inspiration for founding the Special Olympics, a fact that has been mentioned many times in the past few days.  I heard an interesting comment about Rosemary on NPR today.  The reporter said that Rosemary herself lived a very long life but had to be institutionalized for much of it because of her mental retardation.  I think this is actually a false statement. 

By all accounts, Rosemary’s mental retardation was mild.  In fact, there is some dispute as to whether she was mentally retarded at all.  But as an adolescent and young adult, she had violent mood swings and became difficult to control.  Her parents heard about a radical new procedure that could mellow out those mood swings and met the man who performed the procedure.  The man they met was Walter Freeman, whom I have written about before.  He popularized the lobotomy in the United States and performed thousands of them, including one on Howard Dully when Dully was twelve years old.  Dully went on to write the amazing memoir My Lobotomy, revealing that he probably is able to function as well as he does precisely because the procedure was performed when he was so young and his brain was able to recover.  Rosemary Kennedy was not as lucky.  Freeman performed the procedure on her when she was 23 years old and it left her with the mental capacity of an infant, incontinent and unable to speak.  She was institutionalized for the rest of her life.  Rose Kennedy (Rosemary’s mother) is said to have considered Rosemary’s incapacitation via the lobotomy to be the first of the Kennedy tragedies.  So it was Walter Freeman and his revolutionary procedure that caused Rosemary to be institutionalized for most of her life, not her mental retardation.

1 Comment

  1. I have read My Lobotomy and it was fascinating. Not great literature, but you can’t set very high expectations for someone labotomized at 12. When you consider that Rosemary grew up in the age of medical terms like “imbicle” and “moron,” used to classify and track people, you do wonder whether she would be considered disabled at all today (pre-surgery, of course). Also see State Boy’s rebellion about a class at the Fernald School that had had enough. Another fascinating read.

    Why do I go on and on? because our physicians have told us a lot of things were good for us. And they have been wrong as often as they are right.

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