Henry H. Goodell was born in Constantinople on May 20, 1839. He was sent to the United States at the age of 17 and graduated from Amherst College in 1862. Upon graduation, Goodell joined the 25th Connecticut Volunteers for one year.
When the Massachusetts Agricultural College opened in 1867, Goodell was appointed professor of modern languages and English literature. During the next twenty years he taught many other subjects as well, such as military tactics, the natural sciences, rhetoric, elocution, and history. He also was the first college librarian, advocating for expansion of its collection. In 1886 Goodell was chosen president of the college, serving until 1905.
Under Goodell, many changes occurred at the college. The first women were admitted in 1892. The faculty of the college was strengthened with the addition of assistant professors. New courses were added to the curriculum, and a regular program of graduate-level instruction began. Seniors were offered elective courses for the first time. The first doctoral degree was granted in entomology in 1902. The Experiment Station began operations in this period, and Goodell served as its director for several years. Goodell also ended the practice of compulsory student labor on the college farm. In 1905, at the end of his term, the college had an undergraduate enrollment of 218 and its largest entering class of freshmen.
Active in town affairs, Goodell served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1885 and 1886 and was involved in the Amherst town library.