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Phi Beta Kappa History


Phi Beta Kappa, the nation's oldest and largest academic honor society, was founded on December 5, 1776 by five students at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. 

It was the first society to have a Greek letter name and in its early years it introduced the essential characteristics of such societies: an oath of secrecy (discarded in 1831), a badge, mottoes in Latin and Greek, a code of laws, and an elaborate initiation ritual. 

The original Phi Beta Kappa Society was initially active for only four years because the Revolutionary War forced the College of William and Mary to close. But in the meantime, two other chapters were organized and chartered: The Alpha chapter of Connecticut at Yale was started in November 1780; The Alpha chapter of Massachusetts at Harvard was started in September 1781. 

The Harvard and Yale chapters largely shaped the traditions, policies and permanent character of Phi Beta Kappa, including induction of members and establishment of new chapters. 

During the next 50 years only four additional chapters were initiated. These were:

  • Alpha chapter of New Hampshire at Dartmouth in 1787
  • Alpha of New York at Union in 1817
  • Alpha of Maine at Bowdoin in 1825
  • Alpha of Rhode Island at Brown in 1830

Fifteen more chapters were established in the next three decades. In 1883, the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa was founded, which provided a unified organization for the Society. By that time, 25 chapters had been chartered, although not all were active, and about 14,000 members had been elected.

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