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 December 5, 1776.
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, PBK 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 PBK 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, PBK activities were not permanently re-established there for many years.
This closure would have been the end of PBK 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 PBK 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 PBK. 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 Society.”
Today there are 280 chapters at American colleges and universities and 61 active alumni associations located in all regions of the country.
The first two centuries of PBK’s existence are described by Richard N. Current, Phi Beta Kappa in American Life: The First Two Hundred Years (Oxford University Press, 1990).