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Heiress’ family helped start Duke U.

In this 2005 phoprovided by Duke University Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans poses photos Duke's Nasher Museum Art Durham N.C.

In this 2005 photo provided by Duke University, Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans poses photos at Duke's Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, N.C. Semans, heiress to a vast Gilded Age fortune built on tobacco and member of the family that endowed Duke University, died Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012. She was 91. (AP Photo/Duke University, Chris Hildreth)

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Updated: February 28, 2012 8:21AM

RALEIGH, N.C. — Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, heiress to a vast Gilded Age fortune built on tobacco and member of the family that endowed Duke University, has died. She was 91.

Her daughter, Rebecca Trent Kirkland, said the Durham, N.C., resident died Wednesday at Duke Hospital.

She was the great-granddaughter of Washington Duke, a Confederate soldier who returned home after the Civil War and planted a crop of tobacco. With his sons, Duke helped build the worldwide popularity of cigarettes. He also endowed a small Methodist college that would become Duke University.”

“She was our principal link to Duke’s founding generation and continued her family’s tradition of benevolence throughout her life,” Duke University President Richard H. Brodhead said. “She supported every good thing at this university, and she was a powerful force for good in Durham and the Carolinas.”

She was elected to the Durham City Council in 1951, becoming the mayor pro tem two years later. From 1961 to 1981, she served as a trustee at Duke University.

Semans was a patron of the arts and charities, as well as a crusader for equal rights for women. For decades, she helped run The Duke Endowment, a Charlotte-based foundation founded by her great uncle, James B. Duke.

She also was a longtime trustee of Lincoln Community Hospital, a Durham facility her family started in 1901 to serve the needs of black patients.

Semans was born in 1920 to Mary Lillian Duke and Anthony Drexel Biddle Jr., a U.S. Army general who later served as ambassador to Poland and Spain. She and her family divided their time between her parents’ country estate in Irvington-on-Hudson and their Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City, across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. AP

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