Mary Duke Biddle: A personal legacy of service

Mary Lillian Duke was born on November 16, 1887, the only daughter of Benjamin Newton Duke and his wife, Sara Pearson Angier Duke, and the granddaughter of Washington Duke. From an early age, Mary was exposed to the themes that would shape and define her world outlook: how modest gifts of time and money can multiply, how access to education can forever alter a life path, how music and the arts can enrich the human condition, how churches and congregations can uplift impoverished souls.

Mary attended Durham public schools as a child, and enrolled in Trinity College, where she earned her degree in English in 1907. The institution, later named Duke University, flourished thanks to the financial backing of her grandfather, father, and uncle. After graduation, she engaged in Durham’s social and civic affairs and was active in the Methodist church.

In June of 1915, Mary married Anthony Drexel Biddle, Jr. The couple had homes in Irvington-on-Hudson and in New York City, across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The couple had two children, daughter Mary Duke Biddle and son Nicholas Duke Biddle.

Divorced in 1931, the couple parted ways, and Mary began to spend more time in Durham, where her community and family connections grew deeper. Near the end of her life she discussed with family and friends a desire to continue her financial support of the causes and organizations that she, her parents, and her grandfather had assisted. On September 14, 1956, The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation was established as a trust under the laws of New York. According to the terms of the trust, Mary Duke Biddle stipulated that at least one half of the Foundation’s income or principal be directed to Duke University.

With an initial contribution of 800 shares of Aluminium Limited stock valued at $108,950, the Foundation made its first grants in December of that year: $204 to Duke University and $204 to Christ Church, Methodist in New York. During the next four years, the founder helped increase its capital and direct contributions to Duke University, churches, hospitals, and various charitable organizations.

Mary Duke Biddle died in 1960 at the age of seventy-three, leaving behind a personal legacy of service to others and a permanent institution for the benefit of the people of New York and North Carolina. To date, The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation has awarded grants totaling more than $39 million in support of the goals she endorsed and values she exemplified.