In Memoriam: Arts patron Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, 91

Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans. Chris Hildreth image, Duke University.

Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans. Chris Hildreth image, Duke University.

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, heiress to a vast Gilded Age fortune built on tobacco and member of the family that endowed Duke University, has died. She was 91.

Her daughter, Rebecca Trent Kirkland, said the Durham, N.C., resident died Wednesday at Duke Hospital.

She was the great-granddaughter of Washington Duke, a Confederate soldier who returned home after the Civil War and planted a crop of tobacco. With his sons, Duke helped build the worldwide popularity of cigarettes. He also endowed a small Methodist college that would become Duke University.

“She was our principal link to Duke’s founding generation and continued her family’s tradition of benevolence throughout her life,” Duke University President Richard H. Brodhead said. “She supported every good thing at this university, and she was a powerful force for good in Durham and the Carolinas.”

She was elected to the Durham City Council in 1951, becoming the mayor pro tem two years later. From 1961 to 1981, she served as a trustee at Duke University.

Semans was a patron of the arts and charities, as well as a crusader for equal rights for women. For decades, she helped run The Duke Endowment, a Charlotte-based foundation founded by her great uncle, James B. Duke.

She also was a longtime trustee of Lincoln Community Hospital, a Durham facility her family started in 1901 to serve the needs of black patients.

Semans was born in 1920 to Mary Lillian Duke and Anthony Drexel Biddle Jr., a U.S. Army general who later served as ambassador to Poland and Spain. She and her family divided their time between her parents’ country estate in Irvington-on-Hudson and their Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City, across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At age 14, she moved from Manhattan to Durham to live with her grandmother. She enrolled at Duke University at age 15 and studied art history, graduating in 1939.

While in college, she met and married medical student Josiah Charles Trent, who later became the chief thoracic surgeon at Duke Hospital. They had four daughters before Trent died of cancer at age 34.

In 1953, she married Dr. James Semans, a surgeon and associate professor of urology at Duke. They had three children. In the 1960s, they helped lead the establishment of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Dr. Semans died in 2005 at age 94.

A funeral service is planned for 2 p.m. Jan. 30 at Duke Chapel.


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Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans. Chris Hildreth image, Duke University.

Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans. Chris Hildreth image, Duke University.