Patrick Francis Healy, SJ, was inaugurated as president of Georgetown University on July 31, 1874. The Reverend Father John Carroll (later Archbishop Carroll), who was neither president of Georgetown University, nor a faculty member, founded the university in 1789. Healy is considered Georgetown’s “second founder.”
One of the first African Americans to receive a PhD and the first to head a predominantly white university, Healy was born in Jones County, Georgia, to Michael Morris Healy, an Irish-immigrant planter, and Mary Eliza, a mulatto slave. Patrick was one of ten children. The boys were not allowed to attend schools in Georgia as they were considered slaves by state law so Michael Healy sent his four older sons North where they would become free and able to receive an education. They first attended a Quaker school in Flushing, New York, before they enrolled in Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts.
After graduating, Patrick Healy entered the Jesuits in 1850. He took his vows in 1852 and became a teacher and prefect at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia. In 1853 he returned to Holy Cross as a teacher and in 1858 he was assigned to study philosophy and theology at Georgetown University before receiving orders to go to Rome for further ecclesiastical studies. The Roman winter was hard on his health so he was sent to the Catholic University of Louvain (Leuven) in Belgium where he received a doctorate in philosophy in 1865. Healy became a priest in 1864. In 1866, he returned to teach philosophy at Georgetown, then a preparatory academy and small college.
Healy took his final vows as a Jesuit in 1867 and was named prefect of studies (dean) in 1868 and then vice president. The university’s board of directors voted him acting president in 1873 upon the unexpected death of the president, the Reverend John Early. The following year Healy was confirmed as president.
In the antebellum period, Georgetown attracted mainly Southern students: four-fifths of its alumni joined the Confederacy. After the war, however, students came in far greater numbers from the Northeast. The university’s colors — blue and gray — were selected to symbolize the healing and reuniting of the country.
Healy initiated Georgetown’s transformation from a small school to a modern university. In the post-Civil War years, he modernized the curriculum and his reforms included a new emphasis on science, expanding and upgrading the law and medical schools, and centralizing the university’s libraries. Healy also founded the Alumni Association and oversaw major construction projects. Due to ill health, his doctor advised him to retire; he did so in 1882. Patrick Francis Healy died in 1910.