Eugene A. Foster, 81, Dies; Linked Jefferson to Slave
July 25, 2008
Eugene A. Foster, a pathologist who helped establish genetically the long-alleged liaison between Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, and his slave mistress Sally Hemings, died July 21 in Charlottesville, Va. He was 81.
His death followed a long bout with prostate cancer and leukemia, his wife, Jane Foster, said.
Dr. Foster spent most of his career at the University of Virginia Medical School and at the New England Medical Center at Tufts University. It was only after his retirement and return to Charlottesville that he burst into the public eye with his project on Jefferson.
As early as 1802, the second year of his first term, Jefferson was accused in an article in The Richmond Recorder of having fathered a family with Hemings, a slave on his estate. Such an affair was denied, Jefferson’s family later spreading the story that any physical resemblance between the president and the slave children could more probably be laid at the door of his young nephews Peter and Samuel Carr.
A long line of Jefferson historians, most recently Joseph Ellis, had concluded that an affair was unthinkable.
“After five years mulling over the huge cache of evidence that does exist on the thought and character of the historical Jefferson, I have concluded that the likelihood of a liaison with Sally Hemings is remote,” Mr. Ellis wrote in 1996.
The following year, Annette Gordon-Reed, a black lawyer, sized up the same evidence and reached the opposite conclusion: a liaison was very likely, although it could not be proved, Ms. Gordon-Reed wrote in her book “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.”
Dr. Foster played a remarkable role in helping substantiate this challenge to the consensus view. He had resumed a project to test whether Jefferson was the father of Hemings’s children, after hearing of a new genetic technique of tracing ancestry through the Y chromosome, which descends through the male line.
Jefferson had no male descendants, but blood samples from five descendants of his uncle, Field Jefferson, provided Dr. Foster with the authentic Jefferson Y chromosome. He also tested descendants of the Carrs and of Hemings’s son Eston.
Dr. Foster found in 1998 that the Jefferson Y chromosome differed from that of the Carr family, but was identical to that of Eston Hemings’s lineage.
His report was a model of scientific caution, saying that he could not rule out the possibility a Jefferson other than Thomas was the father of Eston.
But that seemed unlikely, he said, after taking account of all the historical evidence, which included Jefferson’s recorded presence at Monticello at the conception of all Hemings’s known children, a fact noted by the historian Winthrop Jordan.
Dr. Foster’s report, Ms. Gordon-Reed said, “was an enormous boost to my book,” because it ruled out the Carrs, the historians’ favorite candidates as fathers of the Hemings children. The report, and her study, “helped change the consensus on the Jefferson and Hemings story, from a belief it could not possibly have happened to a belief that it did happen,” she said.
Dr. Ellis was one historian who admitted error and said he had changed his mind in light of the new evidence.
The consensus was not achieved without some attacks on Dr. Foster’s findings. But he took them “pretty much in stride.” Ms. Gordon-Reed said.
Besides his wife, Dr. Foster is survived by three children, Susannah Baxendale of Culver City, Calif.; Ethan Foster of Sedona, Ariz., and Rebecca Foster of Charlottesville; and a brother, Roger Foster of Long Beach, N.Y.
In a 1998 interview about the Jefferson case, Dr. Foster expressed surprise that people had so willingly let him take specimens of their blood.
“The whole business has been a coming together of improbable events,” he said.