Eunice Kennedy Shriver: Mental health campaigner who founded the Special Olympics

In 1962, Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her husband, Sargent Shriver, started a day camp on a Maryland farm. That first summer, 36 mentally handicapped children were cared for at the camp. Eunice Shriver realised that these handicapped children were better at sports than carers had previously realised.

The next year, she created the Special Olympics. The first Special Olympics Games were held at a baseball stadium in Chicago in July 1963. Over 1,000 mentally challenged people took part in hockey, athletics and swimming. "For the first time", Eunice Shriver said, "the world was seeing what the most neglected, least appreciated, most scorned and hidden citizens could accomplish."

The triumphant success of the Paralympics, held most recently last year in Beijing, is only the most visible of Eunice Shriver's achievements. Her motivation, she freely admitted, came from the life of her mentally handicapped sister Rosemary. Ever since the 1950s she had thrown herself into working with people with mental retardation and other disabilities. One of her earliest causes was that of women prisoners, and her husband wryly joked that he was one of the few men he knew who had courted his wife mainly at a federal penitentiary.

She shrewdly used the opportunities presented by her father's wealth, the popularity and the assassinations of her brothers – the US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, whom she adored, and her youngest brother Robert – and her husband's successful career, to raise money and in every other way to help the mentally handicapped. But there could be no questioning her absolute dedication.

Eunice, the fifth child of the American Ambassador in London, Joseph P. Kennedy, and his wife Rose, was born into one of the most extraordinary families in the history of the United States, in Brookline, a prosperous suburb of Boston, in 1921. Her father, already beginning to accumulate the enormous fortune which he was later to enhance by investments in Hollywood film studios and by bootlegging alcohol into the United States during Prohibition, drove his children on to compete in every field, and especially at sports. Her mother, who bore her husband's infidelities with the patience enjoined by her Roman Catholic piety, lived to be 100.

By nature or nurture, all the Kennedys, including Eunice, carried on their father's fiercely competitive spirit. They paid a price in emotional stress. "All of the Kennedys", a close family friend said, "were blocked, totally blocked, emotionally. Eunice survived best. I don't know why." One reason may have been her highly successful marriage to Robert Sargent Shriver Jnr.

Shriver, a Newsweek journalist who had known some of the Kennedy children socially when he was at Yale, was introduced to their father as a possible author for a book the patriarch was planning to publish about his oldest son, Joe junior, who had been killed while on a special bombing mission during the Second World War. Instead, Shriver found himself running the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, at the time the world's biggest commercial building. He came to Washington to help Eunice with a research project on juvenile delinquency and ended up as head of the Peace Corps in the Kennedy Administration, then of the War on Poverty under President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Johnson considered Shriver briefly as a vice-presidential running mate in the 1964 election, and appointed him as the American ambassador in Paris. He was vice-presidential candidate in the ill-fated McGovern campaign in 1972.

Eunice was, a friend recalled, "highly nervous, highly geared, and worshipped Jack". So much so that when her brother got back from the war in the South-west Pacific as a decorated hero, she followed him briefly to Stanford University in California. It was a time of great personal distress for her, because her father had authorised a lobotomy on her beloved sister Rosemary, something that shocked her deepest personal beliefs.

In 1947, when Jack Kennedy ran for Congress, Eunice was given the toughest neighbourhoods to canvass, which she did successfully and unfazed. When he won she moved down to Washington and organised their own social set among the inhabitants of Georgetown, then already emerging as the fashionable neighbourhood in Washington. Eunice was a keen partygoer and joined in the sailing, swimming, tennis and golf competitions at the family's compounds on Cape Cod and in Florida. But she was also quite devout and – like her brothers Jack and Robert at the time – a supporter, and indeed a friend, of Senator Joe McCarthy before his disgrace in 1954.

The Kennedy family was bitterly split when the oldest sister, Kathleen, announced that she wanted to marry the Marquis of Hartington, heir to the Duke of Devonshire, and so to great estates in Ireland. Whether her objections were primarily on religious or political grounds is not clear, but Eunice took the side of those who thought Kathleen should not marry into the Protestant Ascendancy.

In the early 1960s, Eunice Shriver began to experience poor health, and she was eventually diagnosed as having Addison's disease, the same glandular imbalance that had afflicted her brother Jack. It is said that she and her favourite brother were "physiologically similar", and certainly she resembled him facially. Increasingly she devoted herself to her work for the mentally handicapped. In 1969 she founded the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Centre, dedicated to research, education and therapy in the fields of mental disability and neurological disorder. Her devoted work for the centre over the years caused her to be known as "the conscience of the Kennedys".

She had five children: Robert Sargent Shriver III; Maria, a television reporter who married the actor and present governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger; Timothy; Mark, now a member of the Maryland legislature; and Anthony. Both Timothy and Anthony carry on her work, Timothy as head of the Special Olympics and Anthony as a mental health activist.

Eunice Mary Kennedy, mental health campaigner: born Brookline, Massachusetts 10 July 1921; married 1953 Robert Sargent Shriver Jnr (four sons, one daughter); died Hyannis, Massachusetts 11 August 2009.

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