Patrick Healy was born February 27, 1830 on a cotton planation near Macon, Georgia, to Michael and Mary Eliza Healy. A former Irish soldier who emigrated to America by way of Canada after the war of 1812, Michael was a planter. In 1829, Michael fell in love with Mary Eliza, a mixed-race domestic slave, and purchased her from her former owner, Sam Griswold. Georgia's laws at the time prohibited interracial marriages, but the two are believed to have been married by a traveling preacher, and carried out their family life as husband and wife.
Considered both illegitimate and slaves at birth under the law, Patrick and his siblings were forbidden from attending school in their home state. Wanting their children to be educated, the Healys sent Patrick and his brothers Hugh and James to Quaker schools in the north, first in Flushing, New York, then in Burlington, where they studied in the 1840's under the instruction of Adeline Glover. Despite the Quaker emphasis on equality, the boys met with some discrimination throughout their school years, based not only on their race, but also on their Irish heritage and the fact that their father owned slaves - something local Quakers found unconscionable.
In the mid-1840s, Michael Healy transferred the boys to the newly-founded Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, where they excelled academically. Patrick's brothers were in the first graduating class of 1849. Their younger brothers, Michael and Sherwood, followed them to Holy Cross. After his graduation a year later, Patrick continued his education at Universite Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, where in 1863 he may have been the second African-American to earn his Ph.D. - his brother Sherwood reportedly received a doctorate in Canon Law from the North American College in Rome in 1860.
Ordained as a Jesuit priest, Patrick served as Georgetown University's prefect of studies from 1868 to 1878, and its president from 1873 to 1881 - the first African-American president of a predominantly white university. Called the "second founder" of Georgetown by some, he reformed the curriculum, oversaw the construction of a multi-use building which now bears his name, expanded programs in medicine and law, and founded the alumni association.