Select highlights in the history of
The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation

1956 The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation is incorporated on September 14 to support the founder’s interests in education, religion, music and the arts, and aid to communities. According to the agreement of trust, half of grant funding will go to Duke University. On November 19, the Foundation’s seven trustees meet for the first time. The board approves grants to Duke University for medical research and Christ Church United Methodist, in New York City.

1957 Trustee Bert Stiles dies and is succeeded by Thomas L. Perkins. A lifelong associate of the Duke family, Perkins would go on to become chair of the trustees for The Duke Endowment, among other distinctions. The Foundation disburses $6,000 to six institutions. Mary D.B.T. Semans is elected trustee of The Duke Endowment.

1960 Mary Duke Biddle dies on June 14 at the age of 73, leaving an additional $10 million in capital funds to the Foundation.

1961 The trustees broaden the scope of money allocated to Duke University from grants made primarily to the School of Medicine to include music and art professorships, library acquisitions, concerts, plans for a new music building, and undergraduate scholarships.

1966 The Mary Duke Biddle Gallery for the Blind opens at the North Carolina Museum of Art, the first of its kind in the world.

1971 A seed grant to Duke’s Department of Psychiatry helps lay plans for a Durham County Drug Abuse Center. In the arts, grants fund a theater company for children, travel stipends for musicians, and East Duke Building Music Room performance hall renovations.

1972 The Sarah P. Duke Gardens, named in honor of Mary Duke Biddle’s mother, receives the first in a series of grants for landscaping and maintenance enhancements. In New York, grantee Jobs for Youth helps at-risk young people earn money for family expenses while staying in school.

1973 Thomas Perkins, trustee, dies and is succeeded by Archie K. Davis, chairman of the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina and former president of the American Bankers Association, and a regional director of the Federal Reserve. William R. O’Connor, the Foundation’s assistant secretary and treasurer, is elected as a trustee. Born in 1905, O’Connor spends his entire professional life in service to the Duke family, beginning at the age of 14. To honor his contributions, the Foundation establishes a music scholarship in his name at Duke University.

1974 On the occasion of Duke University’s 50th anniversary year, the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building, located on Duke University’s East Campus, is dedicated. Guests include Nancy Hanks, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, violinist Isaac Stern, and contralto Marian Anderson.

1975 The Training Center for Hearing-Impaired Children, a Durham preschool pilot project, receives a Foundation grant to hire a full-time counselor. A partnership between Duke Hospital and the Durham Arts Council establishes an arts outreach program for patients. Wednesday’s Child, a film on genetic counseling produced by grant recipient the Human Betterment League, wins top honors in the International Film and Television Festival. The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts in Winston-Salem receives Foundation funds for a new wing dedicated to exhibition galleries.

1976 The Waverly Consort receives funding to present rare music from the twelfth through seventeenth centuries performed on more than 50 Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque instruments.

1977 New York’s Horticultural Society receives funding for urban beautification projects in East Harlem and throughout New York City. A grant to New York University Medical Center’s Institute of Reconstructive Plastic Surgery helps patients with facial and cranial defects overcome physical and emotional challenges.

1978 Founding trustee Freeman J. Daniels dies. Nicholas Biddle resigns from the Foundation board due to his extended travels abroad. D. Chase Troxell, a lawyer with expertise in estate, gift, and income taxation, is elected as a trustee. A grant to Duke University Medical Center creates the Cultural Services Program to enhance the climate for patients and families. (The program was subsequently renamed the Health Arts Network at Duke and in 2013, changed to Arts & Health at Duke. The foundation continues to support this program.)

1979 Grant recipient the National Dance Institute, run by Jacques d’Amboise, expands its programming to include a scholarship class in classical ballet and a program to teach dance rhythm to deaf children. In Durham, the newly relocated American Dance Festival receives a grant to commission original scores for American choreographers Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor.

1980 The Ciompi Quartet spends a nine-month residency in the Duke University Medical Center, presenting concerts for patients, families, and staff. The North Carolina Chamber Players perform a series of public concerts in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, ranging from Viennese selections for a Johann Strauss Festival to Italian operatic works.

1981 Grants this year support a range of institutions that have received past funding, including New York’s Lenox Hill Neighborhood Association and Horticultural Society, and Durham’s Women-in-Action for the Prevention of Violence and Its Causes.

1982 Founding trustee James H. Semans is elected chairman. Mary Trent Jones, granddaughter of Mary Duke Biddle and daughter of Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans and James H. Semans, is elected as a trustee. A grant to the Presbyterian Foundation establishes the Freeman J. Daniels Scholarship at Davis and Elkins College.

1983 Trustee William O’Connor dies and D. Charles Troxell resigns. Thomas S. Kenan III is elected to the board.

1984 Founding trustee Francis Pemberton dies. Trustees note that “he gave a constant challenge to make certain that grants made for the needy, the hungry, the abused or those who lacked housing actually reached the individuals themselves.”

1985 A Foundation grant made to Durham Neighborhood Housing Services in 1980 to re-establish the Old North Durham Community comes to fruition; a new initiative will help strengthen the East End neighborhood, a community dating to the 1890s.

1986 Duke University commemorates the Biddle Foundation’s thirtieth anniversary with an exhibit in Perkins Library. The Foundation’s assets have grown to nearly $12 million, producing $650,000 in income for awarding grants to 72 institutions.

1987 To date, The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation has awarded more than $15 million in grants. A grant to the Joseph and Kathleen Bryan Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Duke University supports a conference to examine advancements in clinical research and the social dimensions of the disease.

1988 In his chairman’s report, James H. Semans notes that while the size of most grants is relatively modest, Foundation trustees always bear in mind, when reviewing each request, that philanthropy is about “people giving to people.” “Instead of looking at a long list of relatively small grants made to faceless, impersonal institutions, we see instead a young actor getting his first big break, a graduate student composing a new string quartet, a dancer attending her first master class, and a medical student free to pursue research instead of working at night as a dishwasher.”

1989 The Foundation awards 144 grants totaling more than $650,000. These include awards to Duke University for the Museum of Art, celebrating its 20th anniversary by mounting its first traveling exhibit; and to Duke Press to help support the publication of former Duke President Douglas Knight’s book, Street of Dreams.

1990 The Foundation helps fund “The Drawings of Federico Garcia Lorca,” a traveling exhibit and cooperative venture between the Duke Museum of Art and the Lorca Foundation of Madrid. A host of complementary projects — poetry readings, music and dance interpretations — are also supported through the Foundation.

1991 To recognize leadership among M.B.A. students of color at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, the Foundation makes a grant to establish the Asa Spaulding Award. Named in honor of the respected Durham businessman, the award honors students who exhibit dedication to serious studies and service to the community.

1992 James D.B.T. Semans, grandson of Mary Duke Biddle and son of Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans and James H. Semans, is elected trustee. With Foundation assets of $14,015,875, the total amount of grants awarded is more than $777,000. One of these establishes the Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle, Jr. Lecture in International Studies at Duke. The father of Mary D.B.T. Semans, Biddle was active in international affairs, including serving as ambassador to Poland and the Benelux countries during World War II.

1993 The Foundation makes grants to 67 North Carolina organizations, including longtime recipients — North Carolina School of the Arts, the Duke Memorial United Methodist Church — and new entities such as Student Action with Farmworkers. In honor of longtime Biddle family friend Bridie Callahan, the Foundation also funds the purchase of a zymbelstern, a special stop that produces the sounds of bells, for the grand Baroque organ at the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, New York City, where Callahan was a faithful parishioner until her death.

1994 John G. Mebane is elected trustee at the Foundation’s December meeting. With a grant from the Foundation, Duke’s new Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy includes as part of its inauguration a symposium titled “Journalists at War.” Tom Brokaw delivers the keynote speech at the daylong seminar, attended by journalists from the U.S., Central America, and Europe. An accompanying exhibit, “Clarity of Vision,” features work by photojournalist Dan Eldon, who was killed while working in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993.

1995 “Art Songs for AIDS,” a concert that grew out of the 1992 performance of the AIDS Quilt Songbook at Lincoln Center, is underwritten by the Biddle Foundation, so that 100 percent of ticket sales goes directly to needy patients at Duke’s AIDS Research and Treatment Center. And a grant to Duke Law School establishes the AIDS Legal Assistance Project, which provides such services to AIDS patients as estate planning, health-care powers of attorney, and insurance coverage guidance.

1996 On the Foundation’s 40th anniversary, assets total $16.3 million. A grant to the Duke University Special Collections Library helps fund a symposium celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of From Slavery to Freedom by John Hope Franklin, James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History. Another grant to the Duke Chapel provides a stone carving honoring Doris Duke for her outstanding philanthropy to the university. It is placed on the wall of the Memorial Chapel where Washington Duke and his sons Benjamin Newton and James Buchanan are entombed.

1997 The Foundation passes the million- dollar mark for grants in a single year.

1998 Trustee emeritus Archie Davis dies on March 13, at the age of eighty-seven. A banker, businessman, and scholar, Davis served as chair of The Duke Endowment, and was the longest serving trustee of The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation. A Foundation grant commissions a statue of Benjamin N. Duke for the university’s East Campus. And a grant to the Triangle Community Foundation helps fund the production of Tutu and Franklin: A Journey Toward Peace, a documentary that brings together Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu and historian John Hope Franklin for a summit on race and reconciliation in the twenty-first century.

1999 Several grants this year are focused on making the arts more accessible to special-needs populations. The National Dance Institute receives a grant for its programs that teach dance to the blind, the visually and hearing impaired, and wheelchair-mobile children. The Metropolitan Museum of Art receives a grant for its Discoveries program for visitors with developmental disabilities.

2000 The American Dance Festival receives support for its Landmarks and Landscapers, a two-year celebration of groundbreaking choreographers of modern dance. Other grants help construct a Habitat for Humanity home in Durham, and fund a free performance of The Nutcracker at the North Carolina School of the Arts for 1,300 disadvantaged children.

2001 Although Biddle Foundation assets decrease by more than 6 percent from the previous year, grants decline by less than 1 percent to $1.15 million, the fifth consecutive year that Foundation grants surpass the million-dollar mark. 

2002 With Foundation support, rheumatology and cardiology researchers in Duke’s Department of Medicine conduct a genetic ascertainment on five generations of the Spaulding family, one of the oldest existing extended families in the United States, for osteoarthritis and early-onset coronary disease.

2003 Publications receiving Foundation support this year include Metamorphoses: Memoirs of a Life in Medicine, by Dr. William G. Anlyan, and photodocumentaries of the Roanoke, Tar-Pamlico, and Cape Fear River basins. A handful of documentary films are also funded, including Tobacco Money Feeds My Family, Been Rich All My Life and Mana—beyond belief.

2004 Founding trustees Mary D.B.T. Semans and James H. Semans retire from the Biddle Foundation board. Mary Trent Jones is elected chair. C. Russell Bryan is elected trustee.

2005 The Biddle Foundation awards more than $2 million in grants, including its largest single grant of $1 million to the Nasher Museum of Art to name an exhibit hall in honor of Nicholas Biddle, an original trustee and son of founder Mary Duke Biddle. Founding trustee James H. Semans, M.D., dies on April 21. Jonathan E. Zeljo, the son of Mary Trent Jones and great-grandson of Mary Duke Biddle, is elected as a trustee.

2006 On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, the Biddle Foundation has awarded more than $34 million in grants.

2007 Grants to Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art include advance support for the blockbuster show, “El Greco to Velázquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III,” which opened in the fall of 2008.

2008 HAND (Health Arts Network at Duke) celebrates its 30th anniversary. Launched by founding trustee and chairman Dr. James H. Semans to bring the arts into Duke Hospital, the program has become a national model for integrating the arts into a healthcare setting.

2009 In honor of lifelong arts advocate Ella Fountain Pratt, the Foundation awards a grant to the Durham Arts Council to support the gallery named in her honor, the 25th anniversary of the Emerging Artists Awards (which she helped create), and a celebration of her life and legacy. In addition, a grant to the North Carolina Museum of Art supports the Mary D.B.T. Semans Garden at its new building.

2010 With support from the Foundation and other donors in honor Mary D.B.T. Semans, Duke University’s Sarah P. Duke Gardens restores and relocates the historic Roney Fountain in the center of the newly-named Mary Duke Biddle Rose Garden.

2011 Three grants from the Foundation support special performances. The University of North Carolina School of the Arts presents “OKLAHOMA” using original Agnes de Mille choreography recreated by Gemze de Lappe, a noted dancer who performed in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s original Broadway production. Piedmont Opera Theatre pays tribute to Dr. Robert Ward, a 2011 NEA Opera honoree, with a production of his Pulitzer Prize winning American opera, “The Crucible,” in collaboration with the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute in Winston-Salem. Finally, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company presents its final engagement during the 2011 Lincoln Center Festival participation.

2012 2012 proves to be a year of transitions for the Foundation. Mary D.B.T. Semans dies at age 91. A board member for nearly 50 years, Mrs. Semans was instrumental in carrying out her mother Mary Duke Biddle’s philanthropic goals. Doug Zinn, the long-time Executive Director, departs to join the staff of the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, and Mimi O’Brien succeeds him late in the year. Jonathan E. Zeljo is elected Chair.

2013 The Foundation moves to the American Tobacco Historic District in August. It resumes grantmaking in September 2013, after taking time to review its mission, current focus areas, and grantmaking practices, and awards 45 new grants totaling nearly $200,000 to nonprofits in North Carolina and New York City.

2014 Vice Chair Mary Duke Trent Jones retires from the Board of Trustees after serving for 32 years. The foundation awards grants totaling $290,000 to 57 nonprofit organizations in North Carolina and New York City and grants to Duke University totaling $522,000. In partnership with the Southern Documentary Fund, the foundation establishes a grantmaking program for documentaries made in or about North Carolina.

2015 Christopher M. Harris, great-grandson of Mary Duke Biddle, is elected to the Board of Trustees. In December 2015, Tom Kenan retires from the Board after serving for 32 years.