Scientists Denounced the 1998 Jefferson-Hemings DNA Study, But Historians and Media Paid No Attention
DNA,—”The genetic findings my collaborators and I reported in the scientific journal Nature do not prove that Thomas Jefferson was the father of one of Sally Hemings’ children. We never made that claim… It is true that men of Randolph Jefferson’s family could have fathered Sally Hemings’ later children.” —Dr. Eugene Foster, lead author of the DNA study
The famous Thomas Jefferson—Sally Hemings DNA article was originally published November 5, 1998 by the British scientific journal Nature. Since 1998 it has been widely accepted by media and academia that the study established a definitive DNA match, and that belief has seeped into our public consciousness. But was a DNA match actually established?
Before the Nature article, most scholars had dismissed the notion of a Jefferson-Hemings affair, citing unsubstantiated hearsay, erroneous claims and an overall lack of any real evidence. Utilizing Y-chromosome analysis that had only became available two years before, the DNA study sought to provide scientific evidence to settle the matter. However, only after publication did it become apparent that lead author Dr. Eugene Foster withheld significant data from his co-authors and the editors at Nature. Therefore Foster’s conclusions were not subject to transparent peer review before publication.
Scientists and medical experts had a great deal to say about the study after publication, particularly the problematic/inaccurate headline Jefferson fathered slave’s last child which Foster later had to retract, admitting that it was “misleading”. This retraction came after scientists around the world criticized the author’s overall interpretation of the DNA results, with experts even calling it “an abuse of the scientific press”. So what was it that scientists found issue with?
Origins of the Study
Eugene Foster, a retired pathologist, became involved at the request of his friend, historian Winifred Bennett. In 1997, Bennett suggested to Foster that he join her to conduct DNA testing of descendants of Jefferson, Hemings and other families to determine scientifically whether any matches occur that would indicate paternity. Bennett described her wish to write a book on the topic and travel with Foster to interview the various descendants when blood samples were taken. Once the results were analyzed, Bennett would then publish her book and Foster would release the DNA findings simultaneously to the press.
Foster initially declined the idea, but after researching the topic he found it to be possible to isolate the male Y-chromosome from the male lines of various family descendants. Once isolated, the y-DNA signatures of the family lines could be compared for potential matches. He then set out to locate and test the y-DNA of family descendants to establish whether Thomas Jefferson fathered any of Sally Hemings’ children.
In order to locate Jefferson descendants, Foster reached out to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (now called the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, aka Monticello) which recommended Herb Barger, a Jefferson family genealogist. Barger was instrumental in locating descendants from various family lines in order to gather their DNA, which appeared in the article’s chart that presented the y-DNA findings.
Initial Study Results
The DNA chart published within the Nature article contains two main columns of information: on the left is ancestry with lists of descendant bloodlines, and on the right is the actual y-DNA information that was obtained from analyzing the blood samples of the descendants. (Since this test in 1998, DNA science has advanced in its ability to analyze and establish both paternal and maternal ancestry, however such a study has yet to be conducted on Jefferson or Hemings descendants.)
Starting at the top of the chart, President Thomas Jefferson appears first, although notably there is no corresponding DNA data next to his name. Next is Sally Hemings’ last son Eston Hemings. Next is the Carr family. Dabney Carr was Thomas Jefferson’s best friend who married Jefferson’s sister. It is actually Dabney Carr’s sons Peter and Samuel (Jefferson’s nephews) who are the focus because they were long thought by historians to be primary suspects for paternity of Hemings’ children. After Dabney Carr’s death at the young age of 30, his sons Peter and Samuel were reared by Jefferson at Monticello and were known to fraternize with the slave women. In fact, the two men were said to have even confessed to relationships with Sally Hemings and her sister Betsy Hemings.
Last on the chart are the descendants of Thomas Woodson, the rumored love-child of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings conceived when in Paris. Woodson is a bit of a mystery since no records have been found of his birth. He was speculated to have been born in 1790 shortly after Sally Hemings returned with the Jefferson family from Paris where Jefferson had been US Minister to France. The first accusation was circulated in a tabloid of the time in 1802 by the scandalous anti-Jefferson writer James Callender. He claimed there was a tall, “light-skinned boy” about 10 to 12-years old bearing a “striking resemblance” to President Jefferson, even though Callender had never even been to Monticello or spoken with anyone there. Given the assumed dates of conception and birth, the tabloid originally claimed Jefferson fathered Woodson from an affair with Sally Hemings while in Paris. That would have ruled out any other candidates for paternity living in Virginia. The Woodson family’s oral history has long maintained that they were direct descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.
However, the DNA results of the numerous male Woodson descendants showed no connection at all to Jefferson’s family DNA.
This can be seen when the DNA markers (number sequence) for the Jefferson family male descendants on the top right of the chart are compared with the Woodson family male descendants’ markers on the bottom right. There is not even a remote match between the Woodson DNA bloodline and Jefferson family DNA. The results negated the extensive oral history and firm belief that the Woodson family held that they were all descendants of Thomas Jefferson. More significantly, it proved false the original 1802 tabloid attack on Jefferson that first claimed he fathered a look-alike son named “Tom” with his “Congo harem” slave “black Sally.” However, according to Monticello slave Isaac Granger, Sally Hemings was “mighty near white” with “long straight hair.”
The Carr brothers’ DNA was examined, but again the DNA markers did not line up with Eston Hemings. Although there was no match for their paternity of Eston, it is important to note that it doesn’t rule out a potential Carr DNA match for any other children of Sally Hemings (Harriet, Beverly, and Madison) since at the time, no blood samples were located for any of them for this study — only for descendants of Eston Hemings.
Last we come to compare the DNA of Eston Hemings descendants to Jefferson family descendants. DNA markers show an apparent match between Eston Hemings male line DNA and Jefferson’s uncle’s male line DNA. However, what is significantly missing from this chart and study is y-DNA data for direct descendants from Thomas Jefferson himself. Jefferson had daughters who carried his family line, but his only son who could carry his y-DNA died in infancy. Jefferson’s little known brother Randolph was his nearest blood relative with five sons of his own, however Foster’s study did not make an effort to locate DNA from Randolph’s male line, nor even mention him.
Instead, Foster went further up the Jefferson family tree: past Thomas Jefferson’s father Peter, up to his grandfather and ultimately over to Thomas Jefferson’s paternal uncle Field Jefferson, who was the brother of Thomas Jefferson’s father Peter Jefferson. Field Jefferson had 4 sons who then collectively had 15 sons of their own. It was from these descendants that the Jefferson family male y-DNA was collected, tracing all the way back through six generations of descendants.
Thus, in the absence of Thomas Jefferson’s male-line DNA, it was from uncle Field Jefferson and his male line descendants’ DNA that the Jefferson male y-DNA signature was established as a match with Sally Hemings’ last son Eston Hemings. (At the time, no DNA was retrieved from any of Sally Hemings other children; only Eston Hemings.)
Even though Thomas Jefferson’s DNA was not available, Foster assumed it would be exactly the same as his uncle Field Jefferson’s male-line descendants. Although there were at least 22 Jefferson males alive at the time with the same y-DNA — five of which lived nearby and were suspects for paternity — Foster put his thumb on the scales with his conclusion: “The simplest and most probable explanation for our molecular findings are that Thomas Jefferson, rather than one of the Carr brothers, was the father of Eston Hemings.” The accompanying headline of the article took it even further to definitively state: “Jefferson fathered slave’s last child.”
The Scientific Backlash
Scientists around the world refuted Foster’s findings. Dr. Jane Rees, Nature Scientific Correspondence Editor, later stated in an email, “We received various replies to the original Scientific Correspondence by Foster, and simply did not have enough space to publish them all.” DNA expert Thomas Traut analyzed the DNA data and noted the error in Foster’s interpretation of the data and the headline: “This title is not a statement of fact.… It, therefore, represents an unfortunate lapse, because Foster et al. omitted any presentation of the number of adult male Jeffersons living in 1807 in that region of Virginia.”
Dr. David Abbey pointed out the error in one of only two letters to the editor that Nature chose to publish:
“…the authors did not consider all the data at hand in interpreting their results. No mention was made of Thomas Jefferson’s brother Randolph (1757-1815), or of his five sons. Sons of Sally Hemings conceived by Randolph (or by one of his sons) would produce a Y-chromosome analysis identical to that described by Foster…Further collaborative data (for example, the whereabouts of any of those who might have been involved at conception) are needed to confirm that Jefferson did indeed father his slave’s last child, as claimed in the title. We know Thomas Jefferson was there, but how about Randolph Jefferson and his sons?”
And it seems that this omission was not by accident. Foster later admitted in an interview with the US journal Science that his assistant, the genealogist Herb Barger, had previously informed him that Randolph or his son Isham were likely candidates for paternity. Reed Irvine, Founder of Accuracy in Media, pressed Foster to further reveal his deception:
“Dr. Foster acknowledged in an interview with me that he had not informed the editors of Nature that Thomas Jefferson had a younger brother, five nephews and two cousins who could have passed the distinctive Jefferson Y chromosome on to the male children of Sally Hemings. He admitted that he had known of these other Jeffersons, but he said rather testily, ‘I don’t believe I have to account for all the history.'”
Randolph Jefferson: An Overlooked Primary Suspect
Re-examining the history and Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence at the time, it turns out that the book Thomas Jefferson and his unknown brother Randolph includes a relevant letter from Thomas to his brother. Randolph, who was then a widower, was invited by his brother to come to visit — which would place him at Monticello a little over 9 months prior to the birth of Eston Hemings. Randolph also coincidentally visited Monticello immediately after Eston’s birth.
Randolph Jefferson lived in the vicinity at Snowden Farm, which was half a day’s ride from Monticello. When Thomas Jefferson was President and living in Washington DC, Monticello often was kept locked up. Jefferson would send advance word he was going to visit Monticello, which prompted friends and relatives to flock there to see him upon his return. At times guests numbering more than 50 would stay for weeks. Therefore whenever he would return to Monticello, all manner of friends and relatives would come to join him, particularly for the funeral of Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Mary in April of 1804, which also happened to be exactly 9 months before the birth of Madison Hemings, one of Sally’s other sons. With so many people visiting, there are almost no records of the comings and goings of Randolph, the Carrs’, or of any other close male relatives to Monticello. It is simply impossible to claim that Thomas Jefferson was alone at Monticello at any given time, and that none of the other 22 Jefferson family males were present.
Of the Jefferson males, Randolph Jefferson in particular is a bit of an enigma and rarely appears in history books. In fact, what little is known of him comes from only a few sources, one of which is the Memoirs of a Monticello Slave by Isaac Granger Jefferson. He described Randolph as being much different than his brother Thomas: “Old Master’s brother, Mass Randall, was a mighty simple man: used to come out among black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night; hadn’t much more sense than Isaac.” In fact, a common description of Randolph was that he was impressionable, unaccomplished and not very intellectually curious (which is perhaps why he was overlooked by the history books).
In addition, Eston Hemings’ family’s oral history stated that they were descended from a Jefferson uncle. Julia Westerinen told the Washington Post “It was never really talked about in our family… We were told we were related somehow to an uncle of Jefferson’s.”. At the time, Randolph Jefferson was known at Monticello as “Uncle” and “Uncle Jefferson.”
Within days after the birth of Eston Hemings, Randolph Jefferson appeared at Monticello. During that visit Randolph drafted his new will with the assistance of his brother Thomas, bequeathing his estate exclusively to his five legitimate sons and daughter. Did Thomas or even Randolph’s children come to know of the relationship and encourage him to get his estate in order? Did Thomas, as the older brother who helped rear Randolph and advise him throughout his life, encourage Randolph to straighten out and change his ways?
Shortly after Eston’s birth, Sally Hemings was relocated from a private cabin to the south terrace colonnades under main house to live with her sister Critta. Could the relocation have been an effort to protect Sally from male visitors such as Randolph? Perhaps, because after this move —to the main house and closer to Thomas Jefferson — Sally stopped having children. Randolph Jefferson also remarried and within a year had a child with his new wife.
Herb Barger, the Jefferson family genealogist who located the descendants, alerted Foster about Randolph Jefferson being a suspect for paternity who would have the same Jefferson y-DNA. Barger also warned Foster about Randolph’s sons being suspects who were known to fraternize with the slave women, particularly Randolph’s son Isham and his distant cousin John Garland Jefferson. Isham spent time being reared at Monticello, and John Garland stayed at Monticello to study law. In an email, Barger warned Foster early in the study:
…a Jefferson/Hemings match WOULD NOT NECESSARILY mean the father to be President Jefferson, but possibly Isham (or another Jefferson around that area at that time)…. I believe CAUTION would be in order if a Jefferson/Hemings match is returned because President Jefferson, Isham and the Field Jefferson blood donors would have the same DNA.
Foster replied to Barger, thanking him for the information about Isham Randolph Jefferson, saying: “This is exactly the kind of information that will have to be considered if it turns out that there is a Y-chromosomal match, even saying, “the DNA evidence in itself can’t be conclusive for a variety of reasons.”
Barger then noticed that the frequency of Foster’s replies to his emails and calls began to diminish. After a long period with no response, Barger wrote an email to Foster warning of the need to be thorough and careful with the interpretation of the DNA findings, and the danger of the media jumping to sensational conclusions, which, if erroneous, could be impossible to retract:
“I have cautioned all concerned that raw results may need interpretation and discussion by those of us with information that may have a bearing on the matter. I would like to be IN on the results BEFORE they hit the media because you know, the first headlines are lasting impressions and any corrections and clarifications would be way back on later pages at later dates. This topic is too HOT and significant to treat it as another “sensational” headline in today’s fashion. The final outcome will have a very profound historical effect (whatever the results may indicate) and should be studied and announced with great care and dignity…”
Despite Barger’s integral contribution to the study, Foster and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation did not invite him to the press conference at Monticello where the study was first shared with the press on November 1, 1998. Barger watched the coverage from home as the nightmare scenario that he predicted played out in the media. Despite Foster’s assurances, neither Randolph Jefferson —nor any other Jefferson males alive at the time — were ever mentioned as possible suspects for the paternity of Sally Hemings’ son Eston.
So why did Foster depart from the scientific method and never mention Randolph Jefferson, his sons, or any other Jefferson male in the article? Why did he withhold crucial evidence of other potential suspects from his co-authors and his editors at Nature? Why was his “simplest explanation” of Thomas Jefferson paternity devoid of impartial, unprejudiced consideration of all scientific possibilities?
As Professor Traut and others called out the erroneous Nature headline Jefferson fathered slave’s last child as “not a statement of fact,” Steven T. Corneliussen, coincidentally of the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, clarified: “In fact, that evidence suggests no specific Jefferson.”
Others in the scientific community, such as Dr. Gary J. Davis, wrote to Nature and pointed out another scenario that Foster had failed to mention:
“…any male ancestor in Thomas Jefferson’s line, white or black, could have fathered Eston Hemings.… Plantations were inbred communities, and the mixing of racial types was probably common. As slave families were passed as property to the owner’s offspring along with land and other property, it is possible that Thomas Jefferson’s father, grandfather, or paternal uncles fathered a male slave whose line later impregnated another slave, in this case, Sally Hemings.”
Two months after the publishing of the Nature article, in a rare rebuke of another scientific journal, the preeminent US Journal Science publicly called foul:
“Contrary to headlines that splashed across the country in November, there is no conclusive proof that former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson fathered an illegitimate child by his slave Sally Hemings. At least five of his family members are candidates for paternity of Sally’s child, researchers admit in a letter in tomorrow’s issue of Nature.”
The next day, Nature published Foster’s mea culpa in a reply to the critiques:
“It is true that men of Randolph Jefferson’s family could have fathered Sally Hemings’ later children. Space constraints prevented us from expanding on alternative interpretations of our DNA analysis, including the interesting one proposed by Davis. The title assigned to our study was misleading in that it represented only the simplest explanation of our molecular findings: namely, that Thomas Jefferson, rather than one of the Carr brothers, was likely to have been the father of Eston Hemings Jefferson…. 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 used the excuse of “space constraints” that kept him from mentioning all the alternative interpretations, however, there appeared to be enough space to simply add the letter “A” to the headline, which would have made it more accurate: A Jefferson fathered slave’s last child.
And regarding overall space constraints, Foster’s article was accompanied by another article on the topic: an essay on the political significance of the DNA study, which was questionable for a scientific journal to publish. In fact, it took up more space than the Foster article, and repeated inaccurate claims of a definitive DNA confirmation: “Now DNA analysis confirms that Jefferson was indeed the father of at least one of Hemings’ children.”
The journal Natural Science wrote perhaps the most damning summary critique:
“Rather than accept the authority of the editor of Nature or some other journal in the determination of scientific truth, both the media and the public at large should be skeptical about all scientific claims until they have been evaluated, not only by peer-reviewed journals but also in the open forum of scientific and public discussion. In particular, the public should be skeptical about scientific claims that support political interests. When such claims lack intrinsic scientific significance (as in the case of those made in the Foster paper), their publication in a scientific journal should be recognized for what it is: an abuse of the scientific press.” [March 19, 1999]
Backlash from the Legal Community
In addition to criticism from scientists, Foster found his DNA interpretation also being criticized by legal experts. Attorney Thomas R. Moore pointed out in the New York Times that based on the DNA evidence “no court of law would hold that Thomas Jefferson had a child by Sally Hemings.”
Historian Willard Sterne Randall reached out to the FBI for clarity:
“I don’t deal in inferences. As a former journalist, I got on the phone and called the head of the DNA lab at the FBI, Jennifer Smith, who told me this case wouldn’t hold up in court because the DNA has to be direct from the father. That is an impossibility because [Jefferson’s] only son died, and as long as there are other possibilities of people who had access to Sally Hemings the case would be thrown out of court on those grounds.”
Put more bluntly by geneticist Carl Ladd, Supervisor of the DNA Unit of the Connecticut State Police: The Jefferson DNA study “doesn’t mean bingo as to whether Jefferson is or is not the father… it is not conclusive.”
Foster backpedaled in his reply to the lawyer in the New York Times stating, “the genetic findings my collaborators and I reported in the scientific journal Nature do not prove that Thomas Jefferson was the father of one of Sally Hemings’s children. We never made that claim.” However his headline “Jefferson fathered slave’s last child” explicitly made this claim, and an editor at Nature confirmed Foster’s duplicity to Reed Irvine:
“[Foster’s assistant Herb] Barger told Dr. Foster about Randolph and the seven other Jefferson men who could have fathered children by Hemings. A Nature editor claimed Dr. Foster did not share this information with them and that he approved the headline that declared without any qualification that President Jefferson was Eston’s father.”
This was verified by Dr. Jane Rees, Nature Scientific Correspondence Editor, when she replied to Herb Barger by email on Jan 11, 1999: “Foster did see a precursor to the title used before publication, and so we do not feel that the title used was imposed on him in any way.”
However, in a disingenuous effort to save face, Foster would pretend that the headline was a mistake on the part of Nature, and he told the Washington Post he was frustrated and working hard to fix their error:
“Dr. Eugene A. Foster, one of the primary researchers in the DNA study, has tried to rein in these stories, but to little avail. In January he repudiated as “misleading” the headline — “Jefferson fathered slave’s last child” — that accompanied a November article he coauthored in the journal Nature, an article that touched off the Jefferson-Hemings uproar.”
Overlooked Eye-Witness Testimony
Historically, one of the most compelling eye-witness accounts comes from Captain Edmund Bacon. In Jefferson’s Garden Book, he describes Bacon as his Monticello overseer “since 1806 and before that working for him in various jobs.” Bacon’s father went to school with Jefferson and was his first Monticello overseer, and Bacon’s oldest brother was the overseer while Jefferson was in Paris as US Minister to France. Bacon dictated his memoirs in interviews with the Reverend Hamilton Pierson, and described how he saw not Thomas Jefferson but another man coming out of Sally Hemings’ cabin on many mornings:
“[Jefferson] freed one girl some years before he died, and there was a great deal of talk about it. She was nearly as white as anybody and very beautiful. People said he freed her because she was his own daughter. She was not his daughter; she was _____’s daughter. I know that. I have seen him come out of her mother’s [Sally’s] room many a morning when I went up to Monticello very early.”
Pierson he said he omitted certain facts “in regard to the intemperance, and other vices… of some who were connected with Mr. Jefferson’s family.” Could the name of the man have been omitted by Pierson to protect the Jefferson family name and any living descendants at the time? It is currently unknown who that regular visitor to Sally Hemings’ cabin was, but one thing is clear: Edmund Bacon said definitively it was not Thomas Jefferson he saw with Sally Hemings, but another man.
And could it be possible that in the evenings, while Thomas Jefferson was entertaining relatives and guests with intellectual discussions in the main house at Monticello, his brother Randolph preferred to slip out and mix with the slaves? Which could have led to a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings? After all, as many historians have pointed out, a relationship between Thomas Jefferson and a slave doesn’t fit his character. However, it could very likely fit his brother Randolph, who rode and served with four militiamen who had black slave mistresses, including one man whose mistress was Mary Hemings, Sally’s sister.
If this were a legal case, Foster would be in contempt of court for withholding evidence and hiding key suspects from the judge and jury. Scientific experts would testify to his faulty analysis and even condemn him for his willful suppression of evidence, reminding the court why scientific studies should always be subject to thorough peer review to avoid bias. And finally, legal experts would point out how the overall evidence does not come close to meeting the threshold needed for conviction.
But this critical scientific and legal analysis and critique all happened outside the attention of the media — after they had run with the first sensational and unvetted story. Foster’s initial article rushed to a biased judgment and provided an a priori conviction based on theory rather than empirical evidence. Where perceptions matter most, the court of public opinion passed final judgment without the benefit of the full evidence or facts.
The Media Feeding Frenzy
The news of Foster’s original DNA article reverberated and became one of the most heavily covered stories of 1998. Much of the coverage demonstrated a remarkable flight from careful and skeptical reporting. All too often, the news stories, commentary, and analysis transformed an intriguing but admittedly indeterminate scientific finding into a dead certainty, with headlines such as “DNA Link; Paternity Proved,” and “Adulterer on Mt. Rushmore,” with the article even charging Jefferson of “statutory rape”. National Public Radio’s account was typical, the correspondent announcing:
The proof is finally in. The president not only did have an illicit sexual affair, he fathered at least one child with his lover… DNA testing has ended (that) debate.
U.S. News and World Report featured an inaccurate genealogical chart that showed a direct DNA line between Thomas Jefferson and the modern descendant of Eston Hemings, even though the y-DNA testing had to come from descendants of Jefferson’s uncle Field Jefferson. This incorrect visual depiction was replicated by other news outlets.
Many journalists went on to turn the DNA results into a sort of referendum on the state of race relations and presidential politics happening at the time. Dr. David Murray, Director of Research at the Statistical Assessment Service, described a hostile environment where those questioning the results were accused of the equivalent of racism:
Are there skeptics and resisters? Indeed, but they are not only inconsequential, they are suspect as to motive. Since the effect of the findings is a moral vindication for slave narratives (moreover, they affirm the sexual oppression of women) and hence, by extension, for the role of the entire African American community in American life, those who today resist the facts (or even express uncertainty) should be seen as not only benighted, but indeed, must be suspected of low motives.
In an editorial headline on the topic, the New York Times characterized those who questioned the DNA claims: “Hemings-Jefferson Deniers, Desperate.” A letter to the Washington Post even went so far as to state, “Like the Holocaust deniers and others… Jefferson’s purported defenders have a problem with the truth.” The dynamic created an environment that cut off critical and even healthy discourse.
Overnight, Jefferson’s stature was diminished, as he was consumed by accusations of hypocrisy and white supremacy. He was accused of being a sexual predator, and several reports even cast him as a child molester. His entire legacy and principles came into question, as Jefferson and all that he stood for was now being seen through the darkest of lenses. The Chicago Tribune all but convicted and condemned Jefferson:
“Now along comes DNA testing evidence, the same leveler that exposed the sexual peccadilloes of President Clinton, to provide clear and convincing genetic evidence that Jefferson fathered at least one child by his slave mistress, Sally Hemings. What a relief. Now Jefferson can be brought down off the god-like pedestal on which some have tried to elevate him, ignoring oral history provided by Hemings’ family…. How are we to view Jefferson now? How about “deadbeat dad”? That’s what you call fathers who run away from their responsibilities to their children.”
However, there were a rare few in the media who researched the topic and steered clear of the sensational bandwagon. Only a handful of media published corrections — often regulated to the back pages — and even fewer noted the failure of the press to correct the record. The Wall Street Journal stated “the backtracking comes a little late to change the hundreds of other headlines fingering Jefferson.” The article pointed out that there were no fewer than eight Jefferson relatives who were potential candidates for some or all of Hemings children. “The research could never finger Jefferson individually with complete accuracy,” said Dr. Stephen Quake, Stanford University Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics. “All that the DNA indicated in the end was that descendants of Jefferson’s paternal uncle have the same Y chromosome as a male-line descendant of Eston Hemings, the youngest son of Sally Hemings.”
The Washington Post ombudsman issued a sharp critique of no less than seven of its own published articles for their overreaching claims, some of which were front page features.
“In reporting on the Jefferson-Hemings story these six months, The Post often has failed to make clear what is fact (DNA testing shows that a Jefferson fathered Eston Hemmings but not which Jefferson), what is speculation and what is convenient.”
An “abuse of the special authority of science”
The US journal Science called out Nature for its editorial failures:
“Y chromosome data cannot be used to identify individual paternity within the Jefferson clan. That’s a job for historians,” Foster says. But that’s not how it sounded in the headlines on the initial Nature report and on an accompanying comment by geneticist Eric Lander of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and historian Joseph Ellis of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. The Foster article was titled: “Jefferson fathered slave’s last child,” and the comment included a heading that said: “Now, DNA analysis confirms that Jefferson was indeed the father of at least one of Hemings’ children”…. Nature staffer Rosalind Cotter agrees that “the whole thing really was rushed through.”
According to science writer Steven Corneliussen, scientific participants in the controversy – who were not scholars qualified to put the results into historical perspective – abused science’s special authority, leading to misreporting that hobbled public understanding. A later flawed statistical analysis of Jefferson’s presumed presence during conception windows only made things worse, and Corneliussen described both as “intellectual disrespect: abuse of the special authority of science.”
“Whether or not Hemings and Jefferson had children together, misreported DNA and misused statistics have skewed the paternity debate, discrediting science itself.”
The legal standards for paternity in the State of Virginia require near certainty: “Parentage between child and man must be established by (i) Scientifically reliable genetic tests which affirm a 98% probability of paternity.”
With at least eight other candidates for paternity alive at the time, Foster’s results proved at best a 12.5% probability, which is nowhere near the legal standard. Foster failed to meet even the basic standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in the State of Virginia, which states: “It is not sufficient to create suspicion or probability of guilt, but the evidence must establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It must exclude every reasonable hypothesis except that of guilt.”
It has been said that “a defining mark of good scientists is that they go to great pains to distinguish between what they know and what they don’t know.” When Foster’s initial DNA article in the journal Nature claimed the “simplest and most probable explanation” is that Jefferson fathered slave’s last child, Foster ignored evidence and put his thumb on the scales, egregiously departing from the scientific method. No amount of backpedaling could put the genie back into the bottle.
A month after the scientific community had rebuked his findings, in a moment of frankness Foster confessed: “This whole affair has been conducted by amateurs. I include myself….”
While Foster lost friends and lost credibility in the scientific world, he was embraced by the historical and social sciences academic world, which invited him to speak at numerous universities, including Yale. Despite the fact that his only expertise was as a pathologist (who studies the causes and effects of diseases), he was invited to England to speak about slavery. In his speaking tour he was at times even referred to as “Historian Eugene Foster.”
And what became of Winifred Bennett and her partnership with Foster to have her book and his article come out together? When Foster began speaking with Nature about publishing his article, Foster went quiet and stopped talking to Winifred Bennett. Months later she was caught by surprise and was devastated when she saw Foster’s press conference at Monticello on the nightly news. Her plan with Foster to release his study together with her book vanished as she watched Foster breaking the news without her, but instead with Dan Jordan, the President of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. For Bennett, it marked the end of her book project and the end of her friendship with Foster. She later described to Herb Barger how she finally caught up with Foster and confronted him:
I said “Gene, what is it you want? Do you want money?” He said, “No. I want fame.” Well, he just was willing to sacrifice me for his fame.