Charles Whitten was born in Redfield, South Dakota, in 1909. He received his A.B. (in mathematics) from Carthage College in 1930. Before graduation he was recruited by William Bowie for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, and he spent his entire career there, retiring as Chief Geodesist in 1972. At that time, the U.S. Department of Commerce awarded him their Gold Medal for Exceptional Service.
Whitten’s interests encompassed virtually all areas of geodesy, with his major work being in geodetic adjustments, where he was one of the first to apply modern computing techniques; his research on crustal movement subsequently found application in seismology and tectonophysics. His work on triangulation included a comprehensive unified adjustment scheme for western Europe in 1951. In spirit, Whitten was the last representative of the grand school of American geodesists: John Hayford, William Bowie, and Walter Lambert, whose efforts brought the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey to a place of international prominence. There, Whitten’s contributions were more in the implementation of new ideas, methodology, and technology, rather than in his own pursuit of pure research. However, due to his far-flung professional contacts and wide-ranging interests, not to mention his genial manner and great kindness, his influence was enormous. He was the recipient of honorary doctorates from the University of Karlsruhe, Carthage College, and the University of New Brunswick.
Whitten joined the American Geophysical Union in 1934, and at the time of his death in 1994 he was one of its nine oldest members. In 1962 he was chosen as one of the original AGU Fellows, and he served as President of the Geodesy Section (1964–1968) and its General Secretary (1967–1974). He was the William Bowie Medalist in 1980 and the first recipient of the Whitten Medal, which AGU created in his honor in 1985. He was active in many AGU committees and functions and was an ardent supporter of AGU and its activities. He was especially concerned with funding, and he was one of those who proposed extending the categories of AGU supporting members to include benefactors for those donating $10,000 or more. Whitten himself became the first benefactor in 1984 and was the only person to hold this distinction for 7 years. From 1974 to his death he was a volunteer researcher on the history of AGU.
Internationally, Whitten was no less active in his devotion and service to the International Association of Geodesy (IAG) and the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG). He was the second American to serve as IAG President (1960–1964), and he headed several international commissions. In 1979, when the IAG created a special award, the Levallois Medal, in recognition of noteworthy contributions to the association for service and accomplishments which foster international cooperation and understanding, Whitten was its first recipient.
Whitten was one of the most beloved and respected figures of the international geodetic community. He was forever youthful in his attitude and interests and was unfailingly helpful to those who were fortunate enough to seek out his scientific advice and wise counsel. In his latter years, he did inestimable service for AGU, IAG, and IUGG. He was not only the best known American geodesist of his time but also one of its most effective and eloquent spokesman. Truly, his life and work epitomize AGU’s motto of “Unselfish Cooperation in Research.”
—Joseph D. Zund
New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico