“How can one help but be moved by such volumes as these:” the Josiah Charles Trent Collection in the History of Medicine


Dr. Trent in his office with a bow saw and Ecorche statue on the desk in front of him.

Dr. Trent with a bow saw and Ecorche statue.

In 1956, Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans donated the Josiah Charles Trent Collection in the history of medicine to Duke University. The Trent Collection, as it is known, is recognized nationally and internationally as a remarkable collection representing the interdisciplinary nature of the history of medicine. The Trent Collection reflects subject strengths in areas like surgery and anatomy and includes multiple formats such as rare books, manuscripts, and medical artifacts from the twelfth through twentieth centuries.

Josiah Charles Trent (1914-1948) was born and spent his childhood in Oklahoma. He received his undergraduate degree from Duke University in 1934 and his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1938, the same year he wedded Mary Duke Biddle. Trent spent time in Michigan, as an intern at the Henry Ford Hospital (1938-39) and as instructor in surgery at the University of Michigan Hospital (1945-1946). Duke was where he completed residency training (1939-1945), and where he returned in 1946 as Associate Professor of Surgery and Chief of the Division of Thoracic Surgery before his untimely death at the age of 34 from cancer.

Dr. Trent was active and involved in numerous academic, cultural, and humanitarian endeavors at the local and national level. He wrote over 40 articles, both historical and clinical. He was a member of bibliographic societies, including the Grolier Club and the Charaka Club, as well as the American Association for the History of Medicine. He served as a trustee on the board of Lincoln Hospital in Durham, and he was a father to four young daughters. Along with his work as a surgeon, Dr. Trent collected rare works thoughtfully and energetically with his wife. In 1956, Mary Trent Semans wrote, “Despite the cloud of illness which hung over him for years, my husband never ceased to be enthusiastic about his library. Considering what he amassed and collected during one short decade, I felt a total obligation and the desire to do my absolute best for the future of those books.”

As Duke University celebrates its centennial, this exhibit highlights the life of Dr. Josiah Charles Trent and the Trent Collection, recognizing this cornerstone of our History of Medicine Collections. 

This exhibit was curated by Rachel Ingold, Curator of the History of Medicine Collections. Many thanks to Sarah Bernstein, the 2023-2024 Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Intern, for her work designing and creating the online exhibit.

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