Abby (also known as Abbie) Moore Goodwin and Abby Leach (1855-1918) were the first two women to be elevated from the rank of instructor to that of associate professor at Vassar College in its Department of Ancient Languages, each in 1886. Three years later the department split into separate units of Greek and Latin, respectively under the direction of Leach (who had pushed for the move) and Goodwin. Goodwin was well prepared for the task. She had served classics at Vassar tirelessly since her first appointment as instructor in 1872, and spent 1888/1889 as a sabbatical year, attending lectures on Roman subjects at Leipzig and Zurich. In that year she also travelled to Rome to deepen her knowledge of recent developments in archaeology, inspired specifically by Rodolfo Lanciani’s lectures at Vassar in March 1887. But on return to Vassar for the 1889/1890 academic year, now with the rank of full professor, Goodwin fell ill with a continued fever (suspected to be caused by malaria) and after some agonizing months died on 23 April 1890.
The eldest of four siblings—excluding a first-born sister who had died in infancy—Abby Goodwin was educated in the schools of Newburyport MA, a coastal town situated near the mouth of the Merrimack river, in Essex County about 40 miles north of Boston. Her father, Thomas C. Goodwin, worked as a cooper on one of the town’s many wharves; he served Newburyport as a councilman during the Civil War and was prominent enough to be elected as his district’s representative to the Massachusetts General Court (i.e., state legislature) in 1865 and 1866.
Details of Abby Goodwin’s earlier life are scant. Presumably she attended Newburyport’s Female High School (founded 1843, and a pioneer in public secondary education); what is certain is that she studied at the State Normal School at Salem (MA) from 1866-1869. To what extent she had the opportunity to study Latin or Greek in Newburyport or Salem is unclear.
Goodwin took her first teaching position at the high school of Fall River MA, where she offered mathematics and French. Over the course of three years in Fall River, she also continued independent studies, so successfully that she was able to make a quantum leap in academic terms—to a post as instructor in Greek and Latin at the new (founded 1861, opened 1865) Vassar College. Starting in 1872, Goodwin found herself as one of several teaching assistants to Charles J. Hinkel, Professor of Greek and Latin Languages and Literature at Vassar since 1869. Goodwin was to continue in that subsidiary role for more than a dozen years.
Diaries and letters of contemporary Vassar students cast some light on Goodwin’s personality, teaching style, and high personal standards. One resident preparatory student recounts her experience in sitting the College’s Latin entrance examinations in February 1878: “Three hours of hard questions followed and great despair on my part. Miss Goodwin evidently disgusted with my ignorance used all her sarcasm upon me and I was thoroughly miserable. But I passed to Freshman Latin with the exception of Virgil's Eclogues and Georgics which I had never read and from reading which I was excused at the end of the semester.” Another student in October 1878 points up Goodwin’s perfectionism (“one can't get a perfect lesson to him [Hinkel], any more than to Miss Goodwin”) while praising her pedagogy (“Miss Goodwin is splendid! She explains everything all out so nicely, defining every little point. She helps us to a translation so smooth and at the same time departing in nothing from the translation.”) In the mid-1880s, the letters of Charleston SC sisters Mary Barnett ’88 and Louisa Bouknight Poppenheim ’89 paint a warm portrait of Goodwin, who is termed “lovely and kind” and is shown taking a deep interest in the life of her students.
The year 1883 was surely a turning point for Goodwin’s professional development. In that year, Abby Leach, fresh from study in Cambridge MA at the ‘Harvard Annex’ (= the later Radcliffe College), joined the Vassar classics teaching staff; within two years Leach received an A.B. and A.M. from the College, having sat its degree examinations. Abby Goodwin followed suit in 1886, and for her degree wrote a short thesis on Plato in the Vassar Philosophy Department. Both women simultaneously were created as associate professors at Vassar in 1886, and elected to membership in the American Philological Association in 1888.
Goodwin in her relatively short life does not seem to have published any scholarly items, nor delivered talks outside the orbit of Vassar alumnae groups. But in her 17 years at Vassar she clearly had a massive impact on the student life of the College, and there is no telling what might have resulted from her 1888/1889 sabbatical experience in Germany, Switzerland and Italy. A memorial service was held in the Vassar chapel for Abby Goodwin just one day after her death, on 24 April 1890. There the College president James M. Taylor (served 1886-1914) is said by the Vassar Miscellany to have spoken “simply and earnestly of Miss Goodwin’s life and character; of her thoroughness and enthusiasm as a teacher, of her broad scholarship, of her personal charm, and of her sincere though unobtrusive Christian life.” The Student's Association followed with several resolutions, including that "In the death of Professor Abby Moore Goodwin, we, the students of Vassar College, have lost not only a most kind and able instructor, but also a personal friend, whose work among us was marked by a warm interest and loving sympathy that have brightened our College life."