A Boston College Pioneer: Reminiscences of Dr. Henry C. Towle, class of 1877 & ‘79

My first visit to Boston College was made when a mere child. I wandered into the ground bordering on James Street and found someone exhuming dead bodies before the building of the Church of the Immaculate Conception…. It was not an ideal location for a Catholic school at first, but we owe the choosing of the site to the aftermath of the Know-nothing movement.

So wrote Henry Towle in the Stylus in June, 1897. Henry was born in 1852 in Paterson, New Jersey to Charles and Margaret Towle. They moved to Boston, where Henry’s father worked as a blacksmith, and the family lived at 37 Malden Street in the South End in very close proximity to the original campus of Boston College.


Church of the Immaculate Conception, abt. 1861, Boston College Building and Campus Images (BC1987.012), John J. Burns Library, Boston College.


In its early years, the College’s curriculum was a seven year program that boys typically began at about age 14. Upon registration, students were examined and assigned to classes with names and structure unfamiliar to those of us who are accustomed to the modern progression of four classes, from freshman to senior. Early Boston College students typically were promoted from “3rd rudiments” through “philosophy,” and the majority left school before earning a degree. In fact, no degrees were granted by Boston College until 1877.

In September 1865, having excelled as a student in Boston public schools, 13-year-old Henry Towle began his academic career at Boston College. After six years of study, he left – having completed his year in the class of rhetoric (his junior year) – to attend the Medical Department of the University of the City of New York. He then returned to Boston and practiced medicine for over fifty years in Dorchester’s Field’s Corner neighborhood. Towle was married twice and had three daughters, Mary, Louise, and Katherine (a.k.a. Ursula Parrott, a well-known writer of romance stories). He died at home of a stroke at age 78.


Early Boston College classmates, undated. Seated: John Halloran, James Murphy, John Cummins. Standing: John McGoward, Edward McLaughlin, William Dunn, Henry Towle. Stylus, Number 7, 1 October, 1898, pg. 389.

Towle earned two degrees from Boston College, a Bachelor of Arts which was conferred as an honorary degree in 1877 with the school’s first graduating class, and a Master of Arts in 1879. At about age 45 he contributed to the Stylus an essay describing the college he remembered from his youth. Although the essay’s language is old-fashioned, the middle-aged alumnus’ affection for his alma mater – combined with the perspective lent by the intervening years – make this an especially evocative impression of the College’s early days. Nostalgia is a given, but Towle does not avoid topics like bullying, inferior academic performance of students, and deficiencies in the new college’s facilities. He does this with warmth, though. He also touchingly points to the example of a former classmate whose academic career was not a success and who had led a difficult life, but who had made sacrifices to care for an elderly employee of the family, as the embodiment of the Jesuit motto, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.

The Stylus is a wonderful resource on the history of Boston College. The earliest of the University’s newspapers, it was founded by students in 1883. The paper featured literary contributions, as well as alumni, athletics, and other college news. By 1933, the Stylus was entirely an undergraduate literary magazine; it continues as such today. Issues from 1883 through 1922 are available online and fully searchable at newspapers.bc.edu. Henry Towle’s essay appears in Number 11, June, 1897.

  • Shelley Barber, Reference & Archives Specialist, John J. Burns Library

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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