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Posts Tagged ‘Rosemary Kennedy has a lobotomy’

Nellie Bly (1864-1922)

Nellie Bly (1864-1922)

I’ve been thinking about the very different lives of reporter Nellie Bly and Rosemary Kennedy. Although over fifty years separated these women, both found themselves at the age of 23 at the mercy of mental health “professionals.” Nellie Bly placed herself in a dangerous lunatic asylum as an investigative journalist because she was desperate to land a job in a world that didn’t welcome female professionals. How else was an uneducated woman to earn a living in 1887?

Bly was the thirteenth of her wealthy father’s fifteen children, her mother being her father’s second wife. When Bly was six, her father died, failing to make specific provisions for Nellie, her mother, and her two brothers. Like many other great women, Nellie Bly (like Annie Oakley) took it upon herself to find a way to take care of her family. She ran a boarding house with her mother and marveled that her uneducated brothers were able to find jobs as clerks and drummers yet, because she was an uneducated woman, she could only aspire to be a chambermaid or washer-woman. Thus it was Nellie’s poverty and the absence of a father that lead her to have herself committed, at the age of 23, to an insane asylum.

But the converse was true of Rosemary Kennedy. Rosemary landed in a mental institution because she was rich and had a father. She had the misfortune to be born “mildly mentally retarded, into a family dominated by her driven and ruthlessly ambitious father,” Joseph P. Kennedy. Rosemary had been living in a convent to keep her out of the public eye, but, as she developed as a young woman, she had begun sneaking out to see boys, and Kennedy was worried that she might damage his famous family’s reputation.

Rosemary Kennedy (back) (1918-2005), with sister Jean and brother Robert

Rosemary Kennedy (back) (1918-2005), with sister Jean and brother Robert

In an attempt to settle her down, her father, without telling his wife, used his money and powerful connections to arrange for his 23-year-old learning-disabled daughter Rosemary to undergo experimental brain surgery, one of the first prefrontal lobotomies ever performed. The operation took place in 1941, but, according to the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, “something went terribly wrong.” Rosemary emerged from surgery not better, but far worse. She regressed to a state of helpless infancy and was confined to a mental asylum for the rest of her life until her death in 2005. Nellie Bly’s story, though, has a happy ending. She walked out of the asylum a free woman and an international celebrity.

To read more on the Kennedys on this site, scroll down the right sidebar to “Categories – People – Kennedys.”

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Releasing Lunatics from their Chains (Robert-fleury)

Releasing Lunatics from their Chains (Robert-fleury)

I was recalling something my grandmother told me about a “field trip” she and her sister Maurine took to Austin, Texas, back in the 1920’s. Both Grandmother and Aunt Maurine were young and single, living in Lufkin, Texas. They had heard all about the state lunatic asylum and wanted to see it for themselves. I think they were hoping to spot a flesh and blood lunatic. The trip was a real highlight.

The two took the train all alone from East Texas to Austin to visit the asylum.

 “It’s lucky they weren’t captured,” says my sister Loise.

I’ve seen the maps of Austin from those days. The important buildings are marked, including the University of Texas, the State Capital, and the State Lunatic Asylum.  True, the Lunatic Asylum was a garden spot and people other than my relatives were drawn to it for good reasons. But I think novels like Jane Eyre give us an insight into attitudes toward the mentally ill. They were weird, scary, and dangerous.

Evidently the Texas State Lunatic Asylum was ahead of its time in its compassionate approach toward the mentally ill. The asylum movement in America and Europe at that time “strived to provide a healthy diet, exercise, fresh air, adequate rest, a strict daily routine, social contact, and a kind but firm approach,” according to the website of the Texas Dept. of State Health Services (1). No longer flogging the patient or tossing cold water on him, the treatment for the mentally ill in the first half of the twentieth century was still far from humane. 

Rosemary Kennedy

Rosemary Kennedy

In 1941, Joseph Kennedy authorized a frontal lobotomy for his beautiful special needs daughter Rosemary, who was proving to be a bit of an embarrassment to him when she tripped curtseying to the Queen of England.

According to Dr. Watts, a surgeon assisting in the lobotomy of Rosemary Kennedy: 

“We went through the top of the head, I think she was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer. I made a surgical incision in the brain through the skull. It was near the front. It was on both sides. We just made a small incision, no more than an inch.” The instrument Dr. Watts used looked like a butter knife. He swung it up and down to cut brain tissue. “We put an instrument inside,” he said. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman put questions to Rosemary. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing “God Bless America” or count backwards. … “We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded.” … When she began to become incoherent, they stopped.” (2)

1. http://www.dshs.state.tx.us/mhhospitals/AustinSH/ASH_About.shtm

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosemary_Kennedy

NEXT: Stunt reporter for THE NEW YORK WORLD Nellie Bly writes TEN DAYS IN A MAD-HOUSE

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