Washington Duke, the patriarch of the Duke Family, is the namesake of the University. A farmer who was conscripted into the Confederate Army during the Civil War, he returned to Orange County (NC) after the war and built his farm from a tiny subsistence to the largest tobacco company in the country.
During his life, Washington Duke gave $500,000 to Trinity College. When J.B. Duke established the Duke Endowment in 1924, Trinity College was renamed Duke University in honor of his father, Washington Duke.
J.B. Duke was the second son and third child of Washington Duke. He was his father Washington Duke's primary business partner and was responsible for many of the day-to-day operations of Duke Tobacco and the American Tobacco Company.
In 1924, shortly before his death, James Buchanan Duke established the Duke Endowment, providing a permanent and lasting endowment for several North Carolina colleges and universities, including Elon and Davidson Colleges. In addition, the Duke Endowment allowed for the growth and expansion of Trinity College into Duke University.
B.N. Duke was the first son of Washington Duke. While is younger brother, James, was the consummate businessman, Ben was primarily in charge of the family's philanthropic operations.
Over the course of his life, B.N. Duke gave money to over 500 individual charities (the exact number is not known). He was particularly passionnate about education and orphans. In addition to being one of Trinity College's main patrons, he also sat on the board of the Oxford Orphan Asylum in Oxford, North Carolina. During tough economic times, administrators at Trinity College often turned to Ben for help.
Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans was the granddaughter of Benjamin Newton Duke and proudly carried the family's philanthropic torch throughout her life. Mrs. Semans was a patron of the arts and sciences. The most recent building at Duke to bear her name is the Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans Health Education Center, which is now being used to provide state-of-the-art medical education at Duke.