Phi Beta Kappa Society

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PHI BETA KAPPA SOCIETY, a collegiate honors society. It is the oldest and generally considered the most prestigious undergraduate honors society in the United States. Taking its name from the initials of the Greek motto "Philosophia Biou Kubernetes" (Love of wisdom, the guide of life), the organization was founded on 5 December 1776 at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Phi Beta Kappa was originally created as a secret social and literary organization, complete with an elaborate initiation process and an oath of secrecy. The original society at Williamand Mary was only active for four years, until the school was forced to shut down because of the approach of the British army during the Revolutionary War. Two chapters, at Harvard and Yale, had been set up a year earlier, and it was these that would mold the character of the organization. In 1831 the Harvard chapter became the first to abolish the secrecy requirements, in the face of anti-Masonic sentiments, and other chapters soon followed. The year 1883 saw the founding of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa, unifying the twenty-five chapters and 14,000 members. The first women were admitted to Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Vermont in 1875. The name of the national organization was changed to Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1988. In 2000 living membership was more than 500,000 at about 250 chapters.


Current, Richard N. Phi Beta Kappa in American Life: The First Two Hundred Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Voorhees, Oscar M. The History of Phi Beta Kappa. New York: Crown, 1945.

Eli MosesDiner

See alsoSecret Societies .