Exhibit on history, mission of 100-year-old Duke Endowment comes to MUSC

June 19, 2024
Six panels of an exhibit. One shows a man wearing a suit. Another says family with three photos. Another says committed to the Carolinas. Another says giving.
An image of philanthropist James B. Duke is on the far left panel, part of a traveling exhibit celebrating The Duke Endowment's 100th anniversary. Photos by Sarah Pack

A traveling exhibit highlighting the 100th anniversary of The Duke Endowment, a private foundation that has contributed billions of dollars to fund important work by the Medical University of South Carolina and other organizations throughout the Carolinas, is on display in MUSC’s Ashley River Tower through June 30.

MUSC President David Cole, M.D., encouraged people to visit the exhibit, called “Committed to the Carolinas.” He noted the longstanding relationship between the organizations. “For three decades, the partnership between MUSC and The Duke Endowment has ensured the success of nearly 125 noteworthy projects that have enabled us to respond to today’s needs and advance health care outcomes.”

The number of noteworthy projects continues to grow. Last December, MUSC announced that The Duke Endowment had awarded it seven grants totaling just over $4.28 million to improve access to high-quality health care in rural and underserved parts of South Carolina.

Hand on a glowing screen with colorful shapes on it. 
The exhibit is traveling throughout the Carolinas this year to share the century of progress that The Duke Endowment has made.

But the exhibit also serves as a reminder that the endowment, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, is about more than granting money. It shows how people who want to help others can do so in a deliberate, effective and meaningful way.

The exhibit’s story starts with the remarkable man who established The Duke Endowment. It describes his origins this way: “The early years of James B. Duke’s life were fraught with uncertainty and loss. As his fortune grew, Mr. Duke set out to care for others along the same lines by which he and his family had been helped.”

Duke was born in 1856 near Durham, five years before the start of the Civil War. His mother and half-brother died of typhoid fever, giving him an early view of the need for good health care and for neighbors to help each other.

Duke also experienced uncertainty as his father, Washington Duke, fought in the Civil War. 

But after the elder Duke came home, the family’s circumstances improved. The war veteran started a tobacco company in a state famous for that product. The business proved so successful that it became an industry leader. 

Four panels of an exhibit. One says child and family well-being. Another says health care. 
These panels feature the endowment's focus on child and family well-being, health care, higher education and rural churches.

Washington Duke took care to demonstrate to his family the importance of sharing that success as their wealth grew, becoming a philanthropist. Meanwhile, the Duke family’s efforts post-Civil War expanded from tobacco to include textiles, hydroelectric power, banking and railways.

And James B. Duke founded what would become Duke Energy, a power company that’s still going strong. That company helped create the financial foundation of The Duke Endowment. In addition to the endowment and the utility giant, Duke also launched Duke University. All three are separate institutions.

Duke took a systematic approach to how he wanted his fortune to be invested. He spent ten years working out what the exhibit calls “his philanthropic vision for the Carolinas.” Duke initially gifted the endowment $40 million in 1924, launching an endowment that would grow to almost $5 billion 100 years later.

As Duke envisioned, the endowment focuses on four areas in the Carolinas: child and family well-being, health care, higher education and rural churches. Jack Cecil, a current trustee of the endowment, said those categories reflect Duke’s deeply held convictions. 

“It demonstrates the thoughtfulness with which he was considering the future of North and South Carolina from his experiences as not only a businessperson but also by listening to his advisers, paying attention to his surrounding communities and witnessing the trials and tribulations of the people from both Carolinas.”

If you can’t make it to the exhibit in person in MUSC’s Ashley River Tower by June 30, you can view it virtually here.

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