History of Phi Beta Kappa
Phi Beta Kappa was founded by five students at the College of
William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. The first meeting was
held in the Apollo Room of the Old Raleigh Tavern on Dec. 5,
John Heath, the first president of Phi Beta Kappa, was
determined to develop a student society that would be much more
serious-minded than its predecessors at the college, one devoted to
the pursuit of liberal education and intellectual fellowship.
The Greek initials for the society's motto, "Love of learning
is the guide of life," form the name Phi Beta Kappa.
The first college society to bear a Greek-letter name, ΦBK
introduced the essential characteristics of the Greek societies
that followed it: an oath of secrecy, a badge, mottoes in Greek and
Latin, a code of laws, an elaborate form of initiation, a seal, and
a special handshake. The organization was created as a secret
society so that its founders would have the freedom to discuss any
topic they chose. Freedom of inquiry has been a hallmark
of ΦBK ever since.
In the winter of 1781, when General Charles Cornwallis positioned
the British army on the York peninsula for what became the
climactic siege of the American Revolutionary War, the College of
William and Mary closed. Though it reopened a year later, ΦBK
activities were not permanently re-established there for many
This closure would have been the end of ΦBK had the group not
earlier agreed to a vision of their only non-Virginian member to
establish chapters in New England. Elisha Parmele, a native of
Connecticut who had studied at Yale and graduated from Harvard,
helped to create chapters at Yale in 1780 and Harvard in 1781, thus
ensuring the continuation of the society.
In 1831, after anti-Masonic agitation prompted much discussion
about the ΦBK oath, Harvard dropped the requirement for secrecy, an
action that probably saved the society from further open criticism
as well as from rivalry with the social fraternities that made
their appearance around that time.
Other chapters were added gradually, and the number nationwide
stood at 25 in 1883, when the National Council of the United
Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa was created.
At about the same time, the first women and African-Americans were
invited to join ΦBK. The first chapters to induct women were at the
University of Vermont, in 1875, and at Connecticut's Wesleyan
University, in 1876. The first African-Americans were elected at
Yale, in 1874, and at the University of Vermont, in 1877.
Between 1887 and 1917, 64 new chapters were established, and by
1983 another 147 had been chartered. In 1988 the national
organization's name was changed to "The Phi Beta Kappa
Today there are 280 chapters at American colleges and universities
and 61 active alumni associations located in all regions of the