- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 15, 2006


Winifred Bennett, an amateur historian who suggested that DNA tests might determine whether Thomas Jefferson fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings, died of kidney failure Oct. 7 at her home in Arlington. She was 71.

Mrs. Bennett’s suggestion, made casually over dinner at the home of a retired pathologist 10 years ago, led a team of scientists to begin a genetic study of Jefferson and Hemings’ descendants.

Their findings, published in 1998, indicated that a man in the Jefferson family, most likely the former president, fathered at least one of Hemings’ children.

Winifred Joyce was born on July 12, 1935, in Columbus, Ohio, and raised in Hamilton, Ohio. She earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Cornell University in 1957 and then moved to New York City. While studying philosophy and art history at New York University, she modeled for the Ford agency.

She moved to Charlottesville in 1993.

Rumors that Jefferson fathered a child with Hemings surfaced as early as 1802, while he was in the White House, but by the 20th century, most scholars gave them little credence.

The article published in the journal Nature received worldwide attention and raised questions about Jefferson’s position on slavery. He had backed away from abolitionism in the late 1700s, saying he feared emancipation would lead to racial intermixing.

The article by retired pathologist Eugene A. Foster and seven others pre-empted Mrs. Bennett’s plans to write a book about the case, her daughter said. It also ended her friendship with Mr. Foster.

“I really regretted that things worked out the way they did, but the project developed a life of its own,” said Mr. Foster, a former faculty member at Tufts and the University of Virginia. “Winifred gets all the credit for originally having the idea of using DNA for this purpose.”

Survivors include a daughter, Phoebe Bennett of Arlington; a son, John Jackson Bennett of Manhattan; a brother, William B. Joyce of Basking Ridge, N.J.; and three grandchildren.

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