While Duke Gardens is one of the most recognized destinations on campus, it’s less well known that the attraction’s origins can be traced back to the medical campus.
The gardens were the idea of Dr. Frederic Hanes (pictured right), a physician who joined Duke in 1930 and became chair of the Department of Medicine in 1933. His daily walks on campus often led him past a debris-filled ravine, the result of a stalled project to create a lake. An avid horticulturist, Hanes had thought that this would be a perfect site for a garden featuring his favorite flower, the iris.
In 1934 Hanes persuaded Sarah Pearson Angier Duke, widow of Benjamin Duke, one of the university’s founders, to donate $20,000 for the garden. Construction soon commenced, and by 1935 the garden boasted 100 flower beds containing 40,000 irises, 25,000 daffodils, 10,000 small bulbs, and assorted annuals. The success was short-lived, however, as heavy rains and flooding destroyed the gardens within months. Hanes, however, was undeterred, and over the next several years, actively worked to rebuild the gardens, raise funds, and act as an advocate for the project. After Sarah Duke passed away in 1936, Hanes continued to work with her daughter, Mary Duke Biddle, who donated money for the reconstruction of the gardens (near the original location, but on higher ground) in honor of her mother. To the left is the first page of a letter Hanes wrote Biddle in 1938 (click on the image to enlarge and read it), in which he describes the project’s progress. Particularly striking is Hanes’s confidence in the garden’s future importance: “It is my belief that your mother and yourself have created something uniquely beautiful here at Duke, and that it is destined to become one of the famous gardens of the country. It will surely be visited by many thousands each year.” Hanes also hired the celebrated landscape designer, Ellen Shipman, to select plantings and redesign the gardens, which opened to the public in 1939.
Duke Gardens was just one of Hanes’s endeavors to benefit Duke. You can learn more about him and his other contributions by visiting the Frederic M. Hanes Papers finding aid. The DUMC Archives also has photographs of the gardens (such as the 2013 one on the right) as part of the Photograph Collection and the Educational Media Services Records. Additionally, you can find out more about the history of Duke Gardens by visiting the University Archives finding aid for Sarah P. Duke Garden Records.