Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious academic honor society, was founded on December 5, 1776, by five students at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was the first society to have a Greek-letter name and it introduced the essential characteristics of such societies: an oath of secrecy (discarded in 1831), a badge, mottoes in Greek and Latin, a code of laws, an elaborate form of initiation, a seal, and a special handclasp. 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 and expression has been a hallmark of Phi Beta Kappa ever since.
Although the original society at William & Mary lasted only four years, ending when the approach of the British army forced the college to close, Phi Beta Kappa had already admitted fifty members, held seventy-seven meetings — mostly literary exercises and debates — and granted charters for new chapters at Yale and Harvard. By 1830, four additional chapters existed, all located in New England. By 1883, twenty-five chapters had been chartered and the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa was founded (now called the Phi Beta Kappa Society). The first women members were admitted in 1875 and the first African American in 1874. The first chapters at historically black institutions were established at Howard University and Fisk University, both in 1953.
The first chapter for the University of California was established at Berkeley in 1898, followed by UCLA in 1930. UCI’s charter was granted in 1974. Currently there are 280 chapters of Phi Beta Kappa with over 600,000 living members. Every three years the Society’s governing body considers applications from institutions desiring to establish chapters. At the 2009 Triennial Council, three new charters were awarded.
The Phi Beta Kappa key, the Society’s official insignia and emblem of membership, is one of the nation’s most distinctive symbols. The original key adopted at the first meeting of the Society was a square silver medal, engraved on one side with the letters SP, the initials of the Latin words Societas Philosophiae (“Philosophical Society”), and on the other side with PBK, the initials of the Greek motto, transliterated in the Latin alphabet as Philosophia Biou Kybernetes (“Love of learning is the guide of life”). A pointing finger and three stars symbolized the ambition of the young scholars and the three distinguishing principles of their Society — friendship, morality, and learning. Later a stem was added to the medal, converting it into a watch key.
Before the form of the key was standardized in 1917, there were many variations in the keys of different chapters. The contemporary gold key incorporates all of the symbols on the original eighteenth-century medal as well as the December 5, 1776, founding date. The recipient’s name, the name of the chapter, and the year of election are engraved on each key.
Additional information regarding the History of Phi Beta Kappa may be found at the Phi Beta Kappa Society Website.
The first two centuries of Phi Beta Kappa’s existence are described by Richard N. Current in Phi Beta Kappa in American Life: The First Two Hundred Years (Oxford University Press, 1990).
Source: “A Capsule History,” from The Phi Beta Kappa Society Handbook for Members, 2006-09.