South Carolina


Number of victims 

Approximately 277 people had been sterilized in South Carolina by the end of 1963. Out of these 277 people about 92% were women (Paul, p. 467). About 41% of all those sterilized were deemed mentally ill. 94% of these mentally ill were women and 6% were men. The remaining 59% of all those sterilized were deemed mentally deficient. 91% of the mentally deficient were women and the remaining 9% were men. Overall, South Carolina had the 23rd highest number of sterilizations in the United States.


Period during which sterilizations occurred

Sterilizations occurred in South Carolina during a period that lasted from 1938 to 1963.


Temporal pattern and rate of sterilizations

Picture of a graph of eugenic sterilization in South Carolina

After South Carolina’s sterilization law was passed in 1935 sterilizations were performed at a very slow rate for the first few years. Between 1940 and 1950 sterilizations were performed at a rate of about 9 per year. Between 1950 and 1960 the number of sterilizations rose dramatically, practically doubling. The three year period spanning from 1955 to 1958 accounted for more than one third of all sterilizations performed in South Carolina (Paul, pp. 465-466). During this peak period, the rate of sterilization per 100,000 residents was close to 2 per year. The number of sterilizations then dropped after 1960, with the last 25 operations performed between 1960 and 1963.


Passage of law(s)

South Carolina was the 31st and second-to-last state to implement a sterilization law. The first sterilization bill was drafted in 1931 by B. O. Whitten, who was superintendent of the State Training School for the Feeble-minded. Whitten was unable to find a sponsor for the bill that year and the next. In 1933, however, he was sponsored by attorney-legislator Shepard K. Nash. The bill was passed by the state Senate but was quickly revoked among opposition from the state’s House of Representatives. The bill was similarly passed and then shot down the following year before finally getting passed for good in 1935 (Larson, pp. 126-29).


Groups identified in the law

The sterilization bill in South Carolina was aimed at “any inmate of such institution who is afflicted with any hereditary form of insanity that is recurrent, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-minded[ness] or epilepsy” (Larson, p. 126).


Process of the law

The sterilization bill was very broad and applied to all patients of state mental health or penal institutions. Power was given to the superintendents of these institutions to request a patient for sterilization. The board of each institution was required to give each patient notice and a hearing before authorizing sterilization. In order to legally find someone eligible for sterilization the board had to determine that they “would be the probable parent of socially inadequate offspring…and that the welfare of such inmate and of society will be promoted by such sterilization” (Larson, p. 126).


Precipitating factors and processes

Eugenics in South Carolina faced a significant amount of resistance. Like many southern states, South Carolina adhered to a culture that put high emphasis on familial relationships. For this reason many people did not want the state to interfere with what they considered to be private family matters, such as reproduction. Louisiana State University political scientist Charles W. Pipkin noted that, “the public has an aversion to legislative interference with parental rights except in cases of extreme neglect” (quoted in Larson, p. 8). Large extended families also provided more support and care for the disabled and others who would have otherwise fallen prey to state institutions. Also like other states in the Deep South, South Carolina had few foreign immigrants who were often the focus of eugenics programs in the north and west of the country (Larson, p. 9). Religion also played a large role in the delayed acceptance of eugenics in South Carolina. A largely religious culture created extended families beyond blood relatives which gave further support to the disadvantaged (Larson, pp. 13-14). Progressivism also did not hold as much sway in the south as it did in other parts of the country. This was due to a relatively smaller number of urban middle-class as well as a smaller number of educated citizens. The Deep South also did not have the scientific or educational resources that were present in other parts of the country to make the idea of eugenics go over more smoothly (Larson, p. 17). The Virginia case of Buck v. Bell had also cast a shadow over compulsory sterilization which was felt in South Carolina (Larson, p. 125). When eugenics in the south did get underway it occurred in a two-step process. Those deemed inferior or feeble-minded were first recommended for segregation rather than sterilization (Larson, pp. 60-65). A lack of funding for facilities towards this purpose and over-crowding would eventually lead to outright sterilization (Larson, p. 91).


Groups targeted and victimized

Apart from the mentally ill and disabled several other groups were also focused on for sterilization. One of these groups was mentally ill women. Out of the 277 people sterilized in South Carolina women represented a disproportionate number (Paul, p. 467). African-Americans were also singled out, representing 102 out of the 277 surgeries performed. This was despite the fact that twice as many white patients were admitted to state hospitals as blacks. Eugenics researcher Philip Reilly noted that of states in the south with sterilization laws “only in South Carolina, which operated a small sterilization program, is there strong evidence of racial discrimination” (Larson, p. 155).


Other restrictions placed on those identified in the law or with disabilities in general

Similar to a couple of other states in the Deep South there was a preexisting law in South Carolina that invalidated marriage contracts entered into by anyone defined as “an idiot or lunatic”. This law was based on the assumption that individuals included in these categories did not possess the necessary mental capacity to enter into such a legal contract (Larson, p. 98).


Major proponents

The most influential proponent of eugenics in South Carolina was Benjamin O. Whitten. Whitten was the superintendent of the State School for the Feeble-minded (Larson, p. 126). He advocated for the segregation of mentally retarded blacks in 1924 (Larson, p. 93) and would eventually draft the sterilization bill in 1931. He would finally get the bill permanently passed into law on 1935 after persisting in the wake of heavy opposition from state legislators (Larson, p. 129).   


Despite his direct involvement in the sterilization of many people Whitten showed no remorse and remained convinced that he was doing the right thing. He is quoted as having said that “If our institution does nothing more than incarcerate, teach, and train those admitted thereto, of course, it will have failed in many of the high purposes for which it is intended” (quoted in Noll, “Public Face”, p. 28). It is interesting to note that when he later wrote the book A History of Whitten Village, which gives an account of the early years of the South Carolina Training School, he left out any indication of its history in eugenics (Noll, “Public Face”, p. 40).


“Feeder institutions” and institutions where sterilizations were performed

The two main feeder institutions in South Carolina were the South Carolina State Hospital and the State Training School for the Feeble-minded. Both were sites for sterilization in South Carolina.

Picture of the South Carolina State Hospital (Photo origin: Ancestry.com,  available at http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~asylums/columbia_sc/index.html)


Although both institutions participated in eugenics, the State Hospital was unique in South Carolina because it sterilized only female patients. Unlike other hospitals, the State Hospital also admitted African Americans; in fact, 102 out of the 104 sterilizations performed there were on African Americans (Larson, p. 155). It is located in South Carolina is in Columbia and continues to function as a hospital, although it has ceased admitting mental patients. Its website gives no reference to their past as an institution for eugenics.


The State Training School functions today as the Whitten Center (Noll, "Public Face," p. 29).



There was much opposition and resistance to the use of eugenics in South Carolina. The greatest opposition came from the state House of Representatives, whose members felt that the practical benefits of compulsory sterilization were far outweighed by the moral outrage it incited. Representative William R. Bradford stated that the practice of sterilization was “inhuman” and that “the state has no right to butcher its citizens”. The main proponent, Whitten, also came under fire when one legislator remarked that were the sterilization bill to come into law Whitten himself should be the first sterilized (Larson, p. 126).



Larson, Edward J. 1995. Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Noll, Steven. 2005. “The Public Face of Southern Institutions for the ‘Feeble-Minded.’” The Public Historian 27, 2: 25-42.


Paul, Julius. 1965. "'Three Generations of Imbeciles Are Enough: State Eugenic Sterilization Laws in American Thought and Practice." Washington, D.C.: Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.