Semans, Physician and Philanthropist, Dies

June 1, 2005

 

James H. Semans, a professor emeritus of surgery at Duke, 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 April 21. He was ninety-four.

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 a 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."

Semans earned his bachelor's degree in 1932 at Princeton University and his medical degree in 1936 at Johns Hopkins University, where he remained on staff as a urologist. On January 1, 1944, he joined the U.S. Army and served for two-and-a-half years as a major in the medical corps. He cared for hundreds of injured soldiers at McGuire General Hospital in Virginia, where he pioneered a bladder operation that decreased the risk of renal failure caused by spinal-cord injury.

An advocate for people with disabilities, Semans was president of the North Carolina Society for Crippled Children and Adults, vice president of the National Paraplegia Foundation, and a member of the Governor's Committee for Employment of the Handicapped. He had a 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.

According to Saul Boyarsky, a retired professor and physician who was chief resident in urology when Semans came to Duke, he 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 1953, Semans married Mary Duke Biddle Trent '39, the great-granddaughter of Washington Duke. Together, they focused their energies on philanthropy and the arts. Semans helped lead the establishment of the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem in the 1960s and chaired the school's board of trustees for its first seventeen years. As a member of the North Carolina State Arts Council, he suggested establishing an emerging-artists program that today provides programs in communities across North Carolina.

He served on The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation for forty-eight years and was chair until he retired in 2004. The foundation funds charitable activities at Duke and other institutions in North Carolina and New York. He helped develop programs in arts education and the performing arts at Duke, where he had a major role in establishing the Ciompi Quartet and the Institute of the Arts. With help from the late physician Wayne Rundles, the Semanses established a premier hospital arts program--now known as the Health Arts Network--at Duke Medical Center. Semans also was an advocate for Duke's establishing a world-class university museum.

In recognition of their leadership in human relations, the couple 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. In 1997, they were awarded the North Carolina Philanthropy Award. James Semans also was honored by the North Carolina School of the Arts, Duke Hospital, and the North Carolina Association of Arts Councils, among others.

In 1999, the university awarded him an honorary degree during Founders' Day ceremonies. In presenting the honor, former 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."

Semans is survived by his wife; six daughters, Mary Trent Jones '63; Sally Trent Harris '63; Rebecca Trent Kirkland '64, M.D. '68; Barbara Trent Kimbrell; Jenny Semans Koortbojian; and Beth Semans Hubbard '85; a son, James Duke Biddle Trent Semans; sixteen grandchildren, including Kenneth R. Harris '94, Charles C. Lucas III J.D. '90, Josiah Charles Trent Lucas J.D. '88; and twenty-two great-grandchildren.