Leach, Abby (1855–1918)

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Leach, Abby (1855–1918)

American educator who was instrumental in opening Harvard's doors to female scholars, which eventually led to the creation of Radcliffe College. Born on May 28, 1855, in Brockton, Massachusetts; died on December 29, 1918, in Poughkeepsie, New York; daughter of Marcus Leach and Eliza Paris (Bourne) Leach; educated at Brockton High School, Oread Collegiate Institute, the "Harvard Annex" (which later became Radcliffe College), Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Leipzig; private studies with Harvard professors; Vassar College, B.A. and M.A., both 1885.

Abby Leach was born on May 28, 1855, in Brockton, Massachusetts, the third of five children of Eliza Leach and Marcus Leach, a manufacturer of boots and shoes who was one of Brockton's leading citizens. Abby was a precocious child who read Latin for pleasure. She graduated from high school in 1869 and entered Oread Collegiate Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, where she studied Greek. For a short while she taught at Brockton High School before beginning a five-year teaching career at Oread in 1873. Three years later, she became preceptress there.

In 1878, at age 23, Leach moved to Cambridge to study Greek, Latin, and English with professors at Harvard College. With some difficulty, she managed to convince William Watson Goodwin, professor of Greek, to take her on as a private student. He was so impressed by her skills that he persuaded Professor James Brad-street Greenough of the Latin department and Professor Francis James Child of the English department to take her on as a private student as well.

Many believe that Leach's work was what convinced Harvard, in 1879, to open up instruction to women through the "Society for the Private Collegiate Instruction for Women," commonly called the "Harvard Annex," which later became Radcliffe College. While Leach continued her studies at the Annex, she also taught at the Girls' Latin School in Boston. In 1883, Leach became an instructor at Vassar College, teaching Greek and Latin. Vassar granted Leach bachelor's and master's degrees in 1885, based on her work at Harvard. She continued her studies at Johns Hopkins and also studied for a year at the University of Leipzig. In 1886, she became an associate professor at Vassar and, in 1889, was made full professor and head of the Greek department, a post she would hold for 29 years.

Leach was a resolute opponent of "expediency and compromise" in education and (by extension and because of her deep belief in the classical Greek ideals) in life. She had a tremendous impact on Vassar through her teaching, despite the damage to her career there wrought by strained relations with Grace Harriet Macurdy , another member of the Greek department, and contributed several articles to various scholarly journals. One of her articles, "Fatalism in the Greeks," was republished as the chapter "Fate and Free Will in Greek Literature" in Lance Cooper's The Greek Genius and Its Influence (1917). She was also involved with several academic organizations; she sat on the committee of managers of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens from 1888 until her death, was president of the American Philological Association from 1899 to 1900, and was president of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (later the American Association of University Women) from 1899 to 1901. Abby Leach died in her home of cancer, at age 63, on December 29, 1918.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Karina L. Kerr , M.A., Ypsilanti, Michigan