Eugene Foster dies: Found Jefferson-Hemings genetic link
Eugene Abram Foster, the scientist turned historian who single-handedly smashed through over a century of denial by scientifically linking the family trees of Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings, died July 21 at UVA Medical Center.
Foster, 81, a pathologist at UVA Medical School and later Tufts University New England Medical Center, was also well known as a civil rights activist. But it was a retirement project suggested by a friend, his decade-ago DNA study on the descendants of Hemings and Jefferson, that created a firestorm.
"It was kind of astonishing," says lawyer/author Annette Gordon-Reed. "He's a scientist who entered into history."
Gordon-Reed had just published her own Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy when Foster's work appeared November 1998 in the weekly scientific journal Nature. Combining historical accounts and DNA evidence, Foster concluded that at least some of Hemings' children must have been fathered by the third president, confirming 19th-century allegations while debunking Jefferson family protests to the contrary.
"It established that the story that the Jefferson family consistently told for 150 years was not true," says Gordon-Reed, referring to a tale that Carr nephews had fathered Hemings' very-Jefferson-looking children. "DNA testing," she says, "ruled out the Carrs."
"We were most surprised that [Monticello head] Dan Jordan and that crowd were so delighted," says Jane Foster, who was married to Gene for 56 1/2 years. "They'd come to the same conclusion. Jefferson was always there when she got pregnant."
Long-time civil rights activist Eugene Williams remembers Gene and Jane Foster as a team pushing to eliminate desegregation–- and Charlottesville was still a segregated town when they moved here in 1959. Williams describes Jane as the more vocal one. Gene, says Williams was "the pusher–- he was in the background."
Bronx-born, Foster attended college and medical school at Washington University in St. Louis, where he met his future bride. The couple lived on Indian reservations in South Dakota and North Dakota, where their first two children, Susannah and Ethan, were born. Third child Rebecca was born in Boston.
Foster's greatest joys, says Jane, were his career as a pathologist and his children, whom he wanted to be happy and productive. He died surrounded by his family.
"I don't think he was a proud man," she says. "He loved life, he loved me, he loved the kids, and recording for the blind." In the past year, the couple discovered online film company Netflix, and rediscovered the joy of watching movies.
"They're great people," says son-in-law Brian Pusser. "All they ever did was try to figure out how to make the world a better place for other people." And of their 56 1/2-year-marriage, says Pusser, "It takes a pretty serious partnership to last that long."