The University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio was chartered in July 1881 as a Catholic college for women and was operated by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. The congregation purchased property from George W. Brackenridge's estate in 1897, and in 1900 the school, then known as the Academy of the Incarnate Word, was located on a 230-acre tract at the headwaters of the San Antonio River adjacent to Brackenridge Park. The name was changed to College and Academy of the Incarnate Word in 1909, and the school affiliated with the Catholic University of America in Washington in 1912. The present buildings were occupied in 1922. In 1945 the school had a faculty of sixty and an enrollment of 560.
In the fall of 1971 the school became fully coeducational (the nursing school had always admitted men). In 1965 the campus included fourteen buildings, including a library, a gymnasium, a student center, a dormitory, a center for intellectually disabled children with a child evaluation and guidance clinic, and a fine arts center; six buildings were constructed between 1955 and 1965. By 1975 a nursing building, a dormitory, and a dining hall had been added. In 1969 the library contained 78,962 volumes; by 1975 holdings had increased to 100,000 volumes. Master's degree programs were offered in the arts and sciences and in teacher education. In 1974–75 the college had an enrollment of 1,510 students and a faculty of 120. Sister Margaret Patrice Slattery was president.
In 1992 the campus comprised fifty-six acres. A new recreation and athletic complex had been constructed on the west side of the river. In 1981 the Elizabeth Huth Maddux Theater Complex was built. The school was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the Texas Education Agency, the Association of Collegiate Business Schools and Programs, the American Music Therapy Association, the Commission of Collegiate Nursing Education, the State Board of Nurse Examiners, the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education, the Joint Review Committee on Educational Programs in Nuclear Medicine, the American Dietetic Association, the Association of Texas Colleges and Universities, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the Council for the Advancement of Support to Education, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas, the Texas Independent Colleges Fund, the Higher Education Council of San Antonio, and the United Colleges of San Antonio. The university is also a charter member of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. In 2001 the J. E. and L. E. Mabee Library held more than 235,000 volumes. Four undergraduate degrees and four graduate degrees were conferred. The president was Louis J. Agnese, Jr. The college assumed the management of St. Anthony Catholic High School in 1995, and officially became the University of the Incarnate Word in 1996. In the fall of 1998 the university's faculty numbered 333 and the student enrollment was 3,583. In 2000 the university opened the China Incarnate Word Education Center in China, in collaboration with South China Normal University in Guangzhou. UIW thus became the only American university authorized to offer a degree in English in China. Also in 2000 the university added the Universe Online, which offers programs for adult learners via the Internet.