Physician. Whitten was born on August 12, 1886, in Pendleton, one of six children born to Edward Whitten and Martha Douthis. As a teenager, he left home to work as a railroad telegrapher. Despite his parents’ objections, Whitten decided to study medicine and enrolled in the Atlanta College of Physicians and Surgeons (later part of Emory University), paying his own way. He graduated with honors in 1913 and returned to South Carolina. In October 1913 he married Myra Ballenger. They had two daughters. After a short stint as a general practitioner in the small town of Cross Hill, Whitten worked as a company physician in the mill town of Newry. In 1916 he joined the staff of the South Carolina State Hospital for the Insane in Columbia.
Whitten joined the hospital staff at an opportune time, as the facility was undergoing an important transformation. As part of Governor Richard Manning’s reform program, the facility was modernized and its new superintendent, Dr. C. Frederick Williams of Columbia, instituted many new treatment regimens. Part of Manning’s reform package consisted of separating those individuals categorized as “feeble-minded” from those labeled as “insane.” In 1918 the General Assembly, with Manning’s prodding, established a separate facility designed to house South Carolina residents labeled as “feeble-minded” or “mentally defective.” Setting aside land in the town of Clinton, the assembly appointed Whitten the first superintendent of the South Carolina State Training School for the Feeble-Minded. The institution admitted its first residents in September 1920.
Whitten fought a continuous battle with a frugal legislature, which consistently underfunded his facility. He developed a national reputation as a skilled institutional administrator, adept at running a large facility, instituting training programs for residents, and advocating his facility throughout the state. In the 1920s Whitten established “colonies” within the Training School. These were small, self-contained facilities away from the institution’s main buildings and were designed to house higher functioning residents and teach them self-sufficiency and independent living skills. By 1931 the Training School housed more than five hundred white residents (state law prohibited the admission of blacks), with close to one hundred in colony settings. In that same year, the state of Utah hired Whitten to establish a similar training school. Whitten spent the better part of 1931 and 1932 in Utah before returning to Clinton and his position at the Training School. He entertained offers from other states but never again left Clinton.
In 1937 Whitten achieved the pinnacle of his profession when he was elected president of the American Association on Mental Deficiency. By the 1940s and 1950s Whitten oversaw an institution that rapidly grew in size and numbers. With increased state and federal funding, Whitten Village (as it was called by then; in 1972 it became Whitten Center) reached a resident population of 2,500 by 1965. He retired that same year. Whitten received many awards for his dedicated service, including an award from the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation and an honorary doctorate from Presbyterian College in Clinton in 1965. He died in Clinton on November 5, 1970, and was buried in the cemetery of the First Presbyterian Church.
McCandless, Peter. Moonlight, Magnolias, and Madness: Insanity in South Carolina from the Colonial Period to the Progressive Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Noll, Steven. Feeble-Minded in Our Midst: Institutions for the Mentally Retarded in the South, 1900–1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Sloan, William, and Harvey Stevens. A Century of Concern: A History of the American Association on Mental Deficiency, 1876–1976. Washington, D.C.: American Association on Mental Deficiency, 1976.
Whitten, Benjamin O. A History of Whitten Village. Clinton, S.C.: Jacobs, 1967.