Mary Semans is the great granddaughter of Washington Duke, for whom Duke University is named. In 1936 Mary entered Duke at the age of 15 and was in the class of '39. She was elected to the Durham City Council and served as Mayor pro-tem. She served on the Duke University trustees board before joining the Duke Endowment, serving as chair from 1982 to 2001. Mary has been extremely active in the NC School of the Arts, as well as the Duke-Semans Foundation that sends artwork on tour to small communities. Mary has been awarded the University Award from UNC, the Duke University Medal, the North Carolina award and the Grand Hall of Duke's Nasher Museum of Art was named in her honor.
Centennial Spotlights

Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans

“A principal link in the life of this university.” That is how former Duke University President Richard H. Brodhead described Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans following her death in 2012 at the age of 91.

The great-granddaughter of industrialist-philanthropist Washington Duke, for whom the university is named, Semans was born in 1920 and spent her first 14 years in her native New York. When she was 14, her parents divorced and she moved to Durham to live with her grandmother Sarah P. Duke, for whom Duke Gardens is named.

In 1935, at the age of 15, Semans enrolled at Duke’s Women’s College and graduated with a degree in art history. She was active in Durham city government and became one of the first two women to be elected to the city council. From 1953-1955 she served as Durham’s mayor pro tempore, the first woman elected to the job. While in office, she spent much of her time pushing for civil rights, funding for the arts, and affordable housing and healthcare

She married twice, once to a fellow student, Josiah Charles Trent, who became a surgeon and chief of Duke Hospital’s division of thoracic surgery. Together they had four children. He died of lymphoma at 34. She later married Dr. James Semans, a surgeon and associate professor of urology at Duke and she had three more children with him.

Copy shot of portrait of Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans in the Gothic Reading Room.

Seman’s connection to her alma mater was deep. She served on the Board of Trustees from 1961-1981. The atrium at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art is named the Mary D.B.T. Semans Great Hall. In 2009, she was inducted into the North Carolina Women’s Hall of Fame.