Duke started in 1838 as Brown's Schoolhouse, a private subscription school founded in Randolph County in the present-day town of Trinity. Organized by the Union Institute Society, a group of Methodists and Quakers, Brown's Schoolhouse became the Union Institute Academy in 1841 when North Carolina issued a charter. The academy was renamed Normal College in 1851 and then Trinity College in 1859 because of support from the Methodist Church. In 1892 Trinity College moved to Durham, largely due to generosity from Julian S. Carr and Washington Duke, powerful and respected Methodists who had grown wealthy through the tobacco and electrical industries. Carr donated land in 1892 for the original Durham campus, which is now known as East Campus. At the same time, Washington Duke gave the school $85,000 for an initial endowment and construction costs—later augmenting his generosity with three separate $100,000 contributions in 1896, 1899, and 1900—with the stipulation that the college "open its doors to women, placing them on an equal footing with men."
In 1924 Washington Duke's son, James B. Duke, established The Duke Endowment with a $40 million trust fund. Income from the fund was to be distributed to hospitals, orphanages, the Methodist Church, and four colleges (including Trinity College). William Preston Few, the president of Trinity at the time, insisted that the institution be renamed Duke University to honor the family's generosity and to distinguish it from the myriad other colleges and universities carrying the "Trinity" name. At first, James B. Duke thought the name change would come off as self-serving, but eventually he accepted Few's proposal as a memorial to his father. Money from the endowment allowed the University to grow quickly. Duke's original campus, East Campus, was rebuilt from 1925 to 1927 with Georgian-style buildings. By 1930, the majority of the Collegiate Gothic-style buildings on the campus one mile (1.6 km) west were completed, and construction on West Campus culminated with the completion of Duke Chapel in 1935.
Engineering, which had been taught since 1903, became a separate school in 1939. In athletics, Duke hosted and competed in the only Rose Bowl ever played outside California in Wallace Wade Stadium in 1942. During World War II, Duke was one of 131 colleges and universities nationally that took part in the V-12 Navy College Training Program which offered students a path to a Navy commission. In 1963 the Board of Trustees officially desegregated the undergraduate college. Increased activism on campus during the 1960s prompted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak at the University in November 1964 on the progress of the civil rights movement. Terry Sanford, the former governor of North Carolina, was elected president of the university in 1969, propelling the Fuqua School of Business's opening, the William R. Perkins library completion, and the founding of the Institute of Policy Sciences and Public Affairs (now the Sanford School of Public Policy). The separate Woman's College merged back with Trinity as the liberal arts college for both men and women in 1972. Beginning in the 1970s, Duke administrators began a long-term effort to strengthen Duke's reputation both nationally and internationally. Interdisciplinary work was emphasized, as was recruiting minority faculty and students. During this time it also became the birthplace of the first Physician Assistant degree program in the United States. Duke University Hospital was finished in 1980 and the student union building was fully constructed two years later. In 1986 the men's soccer team captured Duke's first National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship, and the men's basketball team followed shortly thereafter with championships in 1991 and 1992, then again in 2001 and 2010.
The university's campus spans 8,470 acres (34.3 km2) on three contiguous campuses in Durham as well as a marine lab in Beaufort. Duke's main campus—designed largely by African American architect Julian Abele—incorporates Gothic architecture with the 210-foot (64 m) Duke Chapel at the campus' center and highest point of elevation. The forest environs surrounding parts of the campus belie the University's proximity to downtown Durham. Construction projects have updated both the freshmen-populated Georgian-style East Campus and the main Gothic-style West Campus, as well as the adjacent Medical Center over the past five years.
Duke's growth and academic focus have contributed to continuing the university's reputation as an academic and research powerhouse.
In summer 2014, Duke Kunshan University (DKU) opened in Kunshan, China. DKU blends liberal education with Chinese tradition in a new approach to elite higher education in China. The DKU Global Health Research Center will conduct research projects on climate change, health-care policy and TB prevention and control.
In August 2005, Duke established a partnership with the National University of Singapore to develop a joint medical program, which had its first entering class in 2007.
The university is part way through Duke Forward, a seven-year fundraising campaign that aims to raise $3.25 billion by June 30, 2017, to enrich the student experience in and out of the classroom, invest in faculty and support research and initiatives. Every dollar donated to Duke’s 10 schools and units, Duke Medicine or university programs and initiatives counts toward the campaign’s goal.
Among academic achievements at Duke, three students were named Rhodes Scholars in both 2002 and 2006, a number surpassed only by Harvard in 2002 and the United States Military Academy in 2006. Overall, Duke has produced 43 Rhodes Scholars through 2014, including 22 between 1990 to 2011.
Also, the first working demonstration of an invisibility cloak was unveiled by Duke researchers in October 2006. In 2006, three men's lacrosse team members were falsely accused of rape, which garnered significant media attention. On April 11, 2007, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper dropped all charges and declared the three players innocent. Cooper stated that the charged players were victims of a "tragic rush to accuse."
The university has "historical, formal, on-going, and symbolic ties" with the United Methodist Church, but is a nonsectarian and independent institution.