Eugene Foster; Led Jefferson Paternity Study

Through DNA tests and historical research, Eugene Foster tried to determine whether Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his Monticello slave Sally Hemings.
Through DNA tests and historical research, Eugene Foster tried to determine whether Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his Monticello slave Sally Hemings. (1998 Photo By Leslie Close For The Washington Post)
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By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 25, 2008

Eugene Abram Foster, 81, who conducted a prominent DNA study that linked descendants of Thomas Jefferson to his Monticello slave Sally Hemings, died of complications of renal failure and pneumonia July 21 at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville.

Dr. Foster, a retired pathologist, was a primary researcher in the study, which combined historical accounts with scientific evidence from male relatives of Jefferson and Hemings. The results, published in the scientific journal Nature in November 1998, added more fuel to a long-simmering debate among some historians about Jefferson's relationship with Hemings.

The journal was called to task by Dr. Foster for what he called the "misleading" headline on the article he co-wrote, "Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child."

Some historians contended for years that Jefferson did not father any of Hemings's children. The study conducted by Dr. Foster concluded it was more probable that Jefferson -- rather than two of his long-suspected nephews -- was the father of one of Hemings's sons, Eston Hemings.

"We know from the historical and the DNA data that Thomas Jefferson can neither be definitely excluded nor solely implicated in the paternity of illegitimate children with his slave Sally Hemings," Foster wrote in 1999 in Nature.

He said that when the study began, he and the other scientists knew the results could not be conclusive. "But we hoped to obtain some objective data that would tilt the weight of the evidence in one direction or another," he wrote.

Dr. Foster began his genetic study of the Jefferson bloodline in 1996 at the suggestion of a friend who thought scientific testing might put an end to the dispute about whether America's third president sired black offspring.

Skeptical at first, Dr. Foster studied the idea. Initially, he concluded that conventional technology used for tracing ancestry would make a determination difficult.

However, he changed his mind after a former U-Va. colleague called and told him about research being done with the Y chromosome, which is passed from father to son and goes unchanged from generation to generation.

For the study, Dr. Foster enlisted the help of a prominent DNA researcher from Oxford University in England and other scientists. Dr. Foster also interviewed and collected blood samples from descendants of Jefferson and Hemings.

"I thought it was remarkable that so many people on all sides of the controversy just wanted to participate," he told the PBS show "Frontline" in 2000.

Dr. Foster was born in the Bronx, N.Y., and received an undergraduate degree and medical degree (1951) from Washington University in St. Louis.

During his internship at Salt Lake City General Hospital, he was drafted to work in the U.S. Public Health Service. He was posted on American Indian reservations for three years in South Dakota and North Dakota, followed by pathology residencies in Boston and St. Louis.

He joined the pathology department at U-Va. in 1959 and worked there 17 years.

From 1976 to 1990, he worked at Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston. In retirement, he returned to Charlottesville, volunteered in Democratic and civil rights organizations and read for Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic.

His work with the DNA study was just another dimension of his active post-work life, said a daughter, Susannah Baxendale, who added that her father remained firm in the findings.

"He never wavered from that interpretation," said Baxendale, of Culver City, Calif.

Besides his daughter, survivors include his wife of 56 years, Jane B. Foster of Charlottesville; two children, Ethan Foster of Sedona, Ariz., and Rebecca Foster of Charlottesville; a brother; and four grandchildren.

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