Philanthropist, Surgeon James H. Semans Dies At Age 94

Semans helped lead the establishment of the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem in the 1960s

Dr. James H. Semans, a Duke University surgeon and urologist who combined a career as a leading medical scientist and physician with a passion for the arts and charitable causes, died at his Durham home on Thursday. He was 94.

Semans was a pioneer in rehabilitative and urinary surgery who during World War II developed an operation on the bladder neck sphincter to relieve retained urine due to spinal cord injury, said Dr. Saul Boyarsky, a retired Duke professor and physician. At that time, renal failure was the primary cause of an early death in paralyzed veterans.  Boyarsky, who was chief resident in urology when Semans came to Duke in the 1950s, said Semans was also one of the first clinicians to link urology to the emerging field of social medicine. "Jim Semans was a visionary medical scientist and humane clinician who recognized before others, the link between sexual dysfunction and personal relationships," Boyarsky said. "Jim probably saved many marriages with his wise counseling decades ago when these issues were difficult to discuss in our society."

In addition to his leadership as a medical scholar, Semans, along with his wife of 52 years, Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, was involved in numerous arts and charitable causes. Semans helped lead the establishment of the North CarolinaSchool of the Arts in Winston-Salem in the 1960s and served as chairman of the school's board of trustees for the first 17 years.

He also served for 48 years on The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation and was chair until his retirement in 2004. The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation funds charitable activities at Duke and other institutions in North Carolina and New York. As leader of the Biddle Foundation, he was asked to assist with the development of arts education and performing components at Duke University, and was instrumental in the establishment of the Ciompi Quartet and the Institute of the Arts.

Semans served on dozens of nonprofit boards of directors. He was president of the North Carolina Society for Crippled Children and Adults and vice president of the National Paraplegia Foundation and served on the Governor's Committee for Employment of the Handicapped. He was also an active leader in many arts, educational and cultural institutions and organizations. As a member of the North Carolina State Arts Council, Semans suggested establishing an emerging artists program that today provides programs in communities across North Carolina.

In 1999, Semans received an honorary degree from DukeUniversity during its annual Founders' Day ceremony. In presenting the honor to Semans, former Duke President Nannerl O. Keohane said, "For Jim, philanthropy is like breathing. It's not a show of largesse; it's just something that one does."

Duke President Richard H. Brodhead said Semans "contributed so much to the Duke community and the larger world. He was a physician who was a wonderful clinician and teacher whose passion extended to the arts and human relations, the needs of the disabled and beyond. He will be missed at Duke and across North Carolina, where his rich legacy will be felt for decades to come."

Born in 1910 in Uniontown, Pa. -- the youngest of seven boys and one girl -- Semans knew at age 15 that he wanted to become a doctor. In his 1985 autobiography, "Coming of Age," Semans wrote, "I really wanted to do something for the illness of mankind, but all along I wanted to be a doctor of the human condition."

Semans received his bachelor's degree in 1932 from PrincetonUniversity, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He earned his medical degree in 1936 from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where he remained on staff as a urologist. On Jan. 1, 1944, he entered the U.S. Army, where he served for two-and-a-half years as a major in the Army's medical corps. During World War II, he served at McGuireGeneralHospital in Virginia where he cared for hundreds of injured soldiers.  It was here he developed a deep interest in people with disabilities, a population for whom he was an advocate all of his life.

After the war, he entered private practice for six years in Atlanta before joining the Duke medical staff as a surgeon and associate professor of urology. He was promoted to professor of urology in 1961.

In 1953, Semans married Mary Duke Biddle Trent, the great-granddaughter of Washington Duke, in whose honor Duke University was named. Together they focused their energies on charitable work, especially involving the arts. "Our aims were the same, the common quest for purpose and meaning in life," Semans wrote in his autobiography. At Duke the Semanses and the late Dr. Wayne Rundles established a premiere hospital arts program -- now known as The Health Arts Network -- at Duke Medical Center. Semans was an advocate for Duke establishing a world-class university museum and was instrumental in the development of the new $23 million Nasher Museum of Art, which is scheduled to open at Duke in the fall.

In 1997, the Semanses were awarded the North Carolina Philanthropy Award. In recognition of their leadership in human relations, the Semanses received the first Humanitarian Freedom Award given by the Durham chapter of Hadassah in 1960. Nine years later, they received the National Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews for distinguished service in human relations. Semans also was honored by the North Carolina School of the Arts, Duke University, Duke University Hospital and the North Carolina Association of Arts Councils, among others.

In addition to his wife, Semans is survived by seven children: Mary Trent Jones of Abingdon, Va.; Sally Trent Harris of Charlotte, N.C.; Dr. Rebecca Trent Kirkland of Houston; Barbara Trent Kimbrell of Sullivan's Island, S.C.; Jenny Semans Koortbojian of Durham; James Duke Biddle Trent Semans of Chapel Hill and Beth Semans Hubbard of Los Angeles; 16 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren.

A funeral service is planned for 11 a.m. Tuesday, April 26, at Duke Chapel.

Memorials may be made to the Semans Art Fund at the North CarolinaSchool of the Arts or the James H. Semans Fund, Duke University Division of Urology.