History of Fraternities in America
The first Greek letter society in the United States was founded in 1776 at the University of William and Mary. Called Phi Beta Kappa, the secret organization was created with the purpose of fostering brotherhood among its members (Student Involvement). This fraternity, as with most original fraternities, focused on studying the classics, and created opportunities for its members to discuss topics such as philosophy, Greek literature, and history. By 1893, Phil Beta Kappa chapters were shifting from literary and social activities to celebrating academic achievements and thereby establishing a new tradition of honorary societies and fraternities.
Forty-three years after the founding of Phi Beta Kappa, Dr. Samuel Brown created the Kappa Lambda Society of Hypocrites in Lexington, Kentucky at Transylvania University with hope of improving the “standards and ideals of medical education and practice” (Embrose). The Kappa Lambda Society was known as an “honorary fraternity”, an organization meant to foster interest in an academic field and encourage member interaction with people of similar interests.
Davidson’s first honorary fraternity, the Gryphon Society, was established in 1911 to recognize student leadership and scholarship. This society was the first of many honorary fraternities to join the Davidson community. Four of the most prominent of these fraternities are Gamma Sigma Epsilon (Chemistry), Sigma Pi Sigma (Physics), Phi Mu Alpha (Music), and Omicron Delta Epsilon (Economics). During the time when they were active at Davidson, these fraternities provided educational events, social gatherings, and discussion forums to enrich the educational and social experiences of the Davidson Community.
Gamma Sigma Epsilon
Following the end of World War I, thousands of American soldiers returned to their normal lives in the United States. Among these veterans were Louis Good ’19 and Manley Siske ’19, both chemistry students at Davidson College. In mid 1919, these men, along with Malcolm Doubles ’22, decided that Davidson College should have a special group that promoted chemistry and encouraged friendships between chemists (The Ray March 1942).
For the next few months these students worked tirelessly to create a national honorary chemistry fraternity that would embody their ideals. They met across from the Davidson campus in a small, poorly heated room in the Henderson Hotel, a place noted more for supporting civic causes than its comforts.
In 1919, they formed Gamma Sigma Epsilon, named after the Greek words for Chemistry, love, and liberty (Gamma Sigma Epsilon, Ritual Manual). The official purpose of the group became to increase interest, scholarship, and research in Chemistry, and to promote friendship and the general welfare of the chemist (Gamma Sigma Epsilon Constitution and Bylaws).
Shortly after the creation of Gamma Sigma Epsilon, the original Davidson chapter became known as the Alpha Alpha chapter because it was the founding chapter in the first state (Gamma Sigma Epsilon Constitution and Bylaws). In its first few years this sole chapter worked hard to induct new members and create an in-depth constitution, an initiation ceremony that tested the mental and physical strengths of candidates, a logo, and even a magazine for the fraternity.
The magazine was named The Ray, and multiple issues were produced each year (Gamma Sigma Epsilon Constitution and Bylaws). The Ray included chemical articles, chapter reports, ads for chemical suppliers, and even jokes placed in the magazine to lighten the mood. For instance, a 1950 issue of The Ray included this joke: A professor once said to his students, “Always use graduates instead of pipettes for measuring cyanide solutions. If you use pipettes, we won’t have any graduates” (The Ray November 1950).
The Ray was popular among students interested in chemistry and eventually helped to create a second chapter, Alpha Beta, at North Carolina State College (now North Carolina State University) in 1921. Yet Davidson’s Alpha Alpha chapter poured the foundation, allowing the fraternity to grow on a national level.
At Davidson College, the fraternity remained highly active and received constant support from the college and its president for decades. Throughout the school year, the fraternity hosted multiple events to provide a place for fellow chemists to interact outside of the classroom.
These events ranged from simple social gatherings to demonstrating complex scientific experiments. In 1941, the chapter even made a sodium cannon and a glycerine-potassium permanganate volcano (The Ray May 1941). The fraternity invited chemists and other scientists to the college to give lectures or speeches to increase interest in chemistry and different scientific areas of study. The Davidson chapter also allowed Davidson professors, such as O. J. Thies in 1941, to present their research to students at the college (The Ray May 1941).
During its time on campus, Davidson’s chapter of Gamma Sigma Epsilon held a biennial conference for all of the active chapters of Gamma Sigma Epsilon around the United States. This conference became key to developing a stronger national fraternity, and eventually different chapters took turns hosting it. Unfortunately, the Davidson Chapter became inactive in 1972 due to a drastic decrease in membership. However, Gamma Sigma Epsilon continued to grow stronger nationally, and by 2016 there were over 80 active chapters across 25 states (History of Gamma Sigma Epsilon).
Sigma Pi Sigma
On December 11, 1921, Dr. J.M. Douglas, along with nine other students and faculty, gathered at Davidson College to officially establish the first physics academic fraternity in the United States, Sigma Pi Sigma (Physics Honor Society Information Booklet 2). Sigma Pi Sigma was founded at Davidson College to foster a deeper understanding of physics as well as promote social interactions between students and faculty. During its early years, Sigma Pi Sigma, which stands for “Scholarship Physics Society,” consisted usually of three or four faculty members and anywhere from fifteen to twenty students.
On January 12, 1896, after hearing from physics professor Henry L. Smith about x-ray experiments in Germany, three students decided to conduct their own late night experiment. Cobbling together pieces of equipment, they took a successful X-Ray of a human finger with two pins in it and a tin box with two bullet casings inside. Professor Smith soon after followed their work with more serious attempts and using a portable machine conducted the first medical use of an x-ray in North Carolina. While such scientific adventures and advances were rare on campus, they do indicate the strong interest in science at Davidson and make the creation of Sigma Pi Sigma chapter a natural fit for the college.
In the early years of Sigma Pi Sigma, each student who wished to join the fraternity had to be recommended and approved. During this approval process, each student had to demonstrate a deep interest in physics and actively desire to enhance their knowledge of the subject (Physics Honors Society Information Booklet 4). Students who were not Physics majors could still join the fraternity as long as they met these requirements and could pay their dues, which at the time included a $3.00 initiation fee and a subsequent fee of 25 cents per month (Constitution Minutes 26). However, due the high standards for joining, candidates were usually chosen from older students who had excelled in higher level physics courses.
In its early years, Sigma Pi Sigma held activities and demonstrations in conjunction with the chemistry fraternity, Gamma Sigma Epsilon. In 1937, the fraternity reported performing on the lawn of Old Chambers, setting bubbles and balloons on fire and melting test tubes with different solutions. Many other students and townspeople attended this event. As shown in the previous example, the experiments were intended to entertain observers and provoke interest in physics and chemistry.
Throughout Davidson history, Sigma Pi Sigma has been active and has given students many reasons to join the fraternity. Keeping with their mission to increase interest in physics at the college while fostering friendship among advanced physics students, the fraternity usually hosts around ten to fifteen events per school year, attended by all members of the Davidson community (Physics Honors Society Information Booklet 1). These events range from pizza socials and star-gazing to physics demonstrations for elementary school students (Davidson College SPS Chapter).
The founding of Sigma Pi Sigma and its success at Davidson College eventually sparked a national movement at colleges and universities around the United States. The movement began with the founding of a second chapter of Sigma Pi Sigma at Duke University in 1925. Well into the 21st century, Sigma Pi Sigma is active at both Davidson College and at the national level. In fact, in 2015, the fraternity hosted a kickball tournament against the chemists and a field trip to a nearby nuclear power plant (Davidson College SPS Chapter). Sigma Pi Sigma has existed at Davidson longer than any other academic fraternity, which speaks to its popularity and positive impact on Davidson students.
Phi Mu Alpha
Phi Mu Alpha, commonly called “Sinfonia,” was organized on October 6, 1898 at the New England Conservatory of Music by Ossian E. Mills and thirteen of his associates. Sinfonia was only a club for two years but became a professional fraternity in 1900. The society was founded to advance the cause of music in America, to foster the mutual welfare and brotherhood of students of music, to develop the truest fraternal spirit among its members, and to encourage loyalty to alma mater (Robson 518-519). These founding ideas were brought to Davidson in 1940 when a group of music enthusiasts opened the Gamma Kappa Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha.
The founding of Phi Mu Alpha was unsurprisingly only a few years after the arrival of Davidson’s new music director, James Christian Pfohl, in 1933. As town historian Mary Beaty put it, “things began happening right away when Mr. Pfohl arrived. … In less than a year, he had reorganized the band, orchestra, and glee club, … [and] prospective students [were] being drawn to Davidson by these musical organizations” (Beaty 303-304). Fortunately, Pfohl’s efforts allowed Davidson to be a part of Phi Mu Alpha’s attempts to advance music in America.
Phi Mu Alpha significantly contributed to campus life between 1940 and 1949. The group petitioned for a Fine Arts Division and upgrades to the Music Department, donated an impressive record collection to the library, and sponsored campus concert series (Chapter Summary 2002). On April 9, 1954, Sinfonia hosted violinist, Melvin Sipe, and pianist, Anita Dixon, who performed in Chambers Auditorium for students who paid the 25 cent admission fee. April 13th of that year, the society held an American Music program in the David Ovens College Union Ballroom (Programs 1940-1962).
Most of these events were free to students. When there was an admission fee, sales were used to benefit Phi Mu Alpha’s “Music Scholarship,” which sought to help students interested in pursuing music (Programs 1940-1962).
Sinfonia was also responsible for Davidson’s Interfraternity Sing. The Sing was an annual competition in which the college’s fraternities competed by performing musical pieces on the steps of Chambers. Judges considered song choice, entertainment value, arrangement, and more to determine which fraternity ultimately claimed the Interfraternity Sing Cup. This yearly occasion became popular on campus. Crowds of students and faculty gathered to support the singers and listen to the performances. The event was elaborate: for example, the Interfraternity Sing of May 8th, 1958 featured eight different fraternities, each of which sang two or three songs (Programs 1940-1962).
Sinfonia had a somewhat rocky history at Davidson, with inconsistent membership and an underlying decline in interest over its 22 years of active status and final seven years of inactivity. There were 31 members in 1955, 23 in 1956, and only 14 in 1960 (Correspondence & Membership 1954-1957). On July 16, 1969, Davidson’s Dean of Students received a letter from Alan Adams on behalf of Sinfonia informing him that the “National Council of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity has voted to recall the charter of its Gamma Kappa Chapter at Davidson College effective immediately” (Adams). Sinfonia was officially no longer a part of Davidson, nearly three decades after first arriving on campus.
Omicron Delta Epsilon
The Davidson chapter of the national honor society for economics, Omicron Delta Epsilon, was founded in 1966 with the goals of “confer[ring] distinction for high scholastic achievement in economics, promot[ing] and stimulat[ing] interest in economic problems and issues, and promot[ing] fellowship among students and faculty who share a common interest in economic analysis and policy” (Memo to the Davidsonian). Two previous honor societies–Omicron Delta Gamma and Omicron Chi Epsilon–merged together in 1963 to establish Omicron Delta Epsilon. Before the establishment of Omicron Delta Epsilon at Davidson, upperclassmen who were interested in business and current economic issues joined the Business Economics Association, which was later called the Investment Club.
Although Davidson College was still an all-male institution until the early 1970’s, the Beta Chapter of Omicron Delta Epsilon at Davidson was established under the power of Louise Nelson, a former banker who joined the faculty of Davidson College in fall of 1964. Louise Nelson was known as a “pioneer,” assuming the roles of the first female cashier of the North Carolina state bank, the first female faculty member of the North Carolina School of Banking, and the “first female professor at Davidson to be granted tenure and a full professorship” (Eblin, Scott). Known for her commanding presence, Nelson “set an unyielding standard of excellence” for her economics students (Eblin, Scott).
When Nelson first arrived at Davidson, the college was all-male. Yet, the college and town was in the midst of great change. According to Blodgett and Levering’s One Town, Many Voices, “many Davidsonians on both sides of town appreciated the ending of segregation in the 1960s and growing influence of blacks and women in civic life.” Louise Nelson embodied the growing presence of women as her students deeply respected and feared her. In fact, it was her own student, J Pinckney Whitson ‘66, who came to her to request that Omicron Delta Epsilon be brought to Davidson under her leadership (Nelson, Cora Louise).
In Nelson’s 1999 speech to the Davidson economics students, she describes bringing the national economics honor society to Davidson. She states that at the time, “top quality scholarship, recognized, among other places, in honor societies, had a long tradition at” Davidson (Nelson, Cora Louise). Yet even though in October of 1965 Dr. Grier Martin ‘32, president of the college, reported that “there [were] more economics majors than in any other field at Davidson,” a society did not exist to prepare economics students for their future after college (Martin, Dr. Grier Letter to Dr. Alan Brown).
Although Dr. Grier Martin had warned that honor societies typically didn’t last very long, Nelson contacted professors at colleges that had previously established a chapter of Omicron Delta Epsilon to gain insight into the purpose and goals of Omicron Delta Epsilon. In a letter from the University of Southern California written in response to Nelson’s request, the Department of Economics advised that “over the years, [they] found that a successful chapter should be able to initiate at least half-a-dozen new members each academic year.” Due to Davidson College’s small student body, the Omicron Delta Epsilon board was skeptical of the college’s ability to qualify for a chapter of the honorary society.
Dr. Grier Martin wrote to the Board of Trustees in October of 1965, stating that on average 390 students took economics each year. He remarked that in 1965, the enrollment in economics at Davidson had been exceptionally strong, “especially in light of the fact that this course [was] not required.” In addition, Louise Nelson attended the 1965 ODE Executive Committee meeting in New York uninvited and reported that she was “polite but a little aggressive” as she discussed the status of Davidson’s application (Nelson, Cora Louise). On April 12, 1966, the Beta Chapter of Omicron Delta Sigma was formally established by Dean Johnston at Davidson.
The Omicron Delta Epsilon honorary fraternity consisted of upperclassmen, men or women, who were majoring in economics. The society required that the members have twelve semester hours of economics and an average grade of at least a B (Constitution of Omicron Delta Epsilon). Under the faculty advisor Dr. Louise Nelson, the society established a constitution that stated that their objectives were “to confer distinction for high scholastic achievement in Economics, to stimulate and promote student interest in all aspects of economics, and to publish an official journal to be entitled, The American Economist” (Constitution of Omicron Delta Epsilon).
Nationally, the Omicron Delta Epsilon honor society has given three awards annually. In her 1999 speech, Louise Nelson introduces these awards as the John R. Common Award, named in honor of one of the founders of the society, the Fisher Award, and the Taussig Award. The purpose of these awards was to honor different aspects of excellence in the realm of economic studies. She mentioned that Gordon Watkins, III ‘87 was the first recipient of the Taussig Award in the South (Nelson, Cora Louise).
One of the most prominent aspects of the Omicron Delta Epsilon society since its establishment nationally is the production of The American Economist. This journal, produced semiannually by the society, was meant to provide a place for distinguished economics students to publish their work and give undergraduates studying economics the opportunity to learn more about “modern developments in pure and applied economics” (Other Honor Societies).
Louise Nelson referenced a series that began in 1983 in the American Economist, called “My Life Philosophy,” when she urged her economics students to understand how and why one should study economics (Nelson, Cora Louise). In 1999, when she gave this speech, the American Economist was still impacting economics students and members of ODE by providing them with real world issues and requiring that they use their knowledge to help solve these issues. In her speech, Nelson reflected that these students had “a firm grasp of the fundamental principles of economics” and the ability to analyze economic problems, but the world had not yet figured out how to feed, house, or provide medical care for the population (Nelson, Cora Louise). The American Economist provided a forum for discussion and education of these complex topics.
Louise Nelson stated that “improving human welfare [was] a worthy goal for graduates of Davidson College” (Nelson, Cora Louise). The Omicron Delta Epsilon honorary fraternity sought to provide economics students the education and opportunities needed to help improve the lives of the population through economics.
A Pioneering Nature
Over the course of the twentieth century the honorary fraternities at Davidson College have all made great strides to become pioneers in their subject area. All of these fraternities promoted a higher level of academic excellence, and encouraged social interaction among high achieving students. For instance both Gamma Sigma Epsilon and Sigma Pi Sigma were the first national recognized honorary fraternities in the subjects in Chemistry and Physics respectively. With the establishment of Phi Mu Alpha, music became a more integrated part of Davidson college life. Omicron Delta Epsilon was established and advised at Davidson by the first female member of the faculty to obtain tenure.
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Authors: Holden Grooms, Ryan Strauss, Marshall Brady, Emily Modlin
Date: November 2016
Cite as: Grooms, Holden, Ryan Strauss, Marshall Brady, and Emily Modlin. “Honorary Fraternities” Davidson Encyclopedia. November 2016. <http://libraries.davidson.edu/archives/encyclopedia/article/honorary-fraternities-2>