Alpha Lambda Delta was founded in 1924 by Maria Leonard, the Dean of Women at the University of Illinois, to recognize academic excellence among freshman women.  One year prior, Dean Thomas Arkle Clark had founded Phi Eta Sigma, an honor society to recognize academic excellence among freshman men.  Both groups operated as single sex organizations until the mid-1970s when they both became coeducational in response to Title IX.

the charter of the first alpha lambda delta chapter at the university of illinois, 1924

the charter of the first alpha lambda delta chapter at the university of illinois, 1924

The Early Years

At the first meeting of the chapter, Florence Finn, president of the society, presented a passage from Plato’s Republic in which Socrates asks the question, “Will they hold torches and pass them to one another...?” This idea, together with the symbol of a candle and the concept of sharing the love of learning with others, caught the imagination of the charter members.

The honor society soon became a national organization through the chartering of chapters at Purdue University in 1926, DePauw University in 1927, the University of Michigan in 1927, and at the University of Oklahoma in 1929.  The first national convention was held in 1930 at the University of Illinois.  Conventions were suspended during the depression years because of travel expenses.  The third convention was held in 1938 at the University of Michigan.  A decision was made at that convention to suspend holding a national convention and to invest those funds into establishing a graduate fellowship fund.  The first fellowship was awarded in 1940 to Louise Houssiere for graduate study at MIT.

The Association of College Honor Societies was organized in 1925 to consider matters of mutual concern to member organizations; Alpha Lambda Delta has been active in the Association since its admission to membership in 1939.  In 1976, in response to Title IX, the National Council voted for the Society to become coeducational.  In 1981, the first two male members of the National Council were installed.

Alpha Lambda Delta has continued to be innovative and responsive in recognizing academic excellence by providing Senior Certificates and the Maria Leonard Senior Book Award since 1939, offering leadership conferences since 1978, recognizing outstanding chapters with the Order of the Torch Award since 1989, and recognizing an Outstanding Advisor of the Year since 1990.

Over the Last Decade

Alpha Lambda Delta has continued to celebrate academic excellence among first-year students and has grown to over 280 chapters and has initiated over one million students. The National Council which governs the organization has prudently invested the resources and gifts from local chapters, National Council members, former fellowship recipients, and friends of the Society over the years so that the Perpetual Fellowship Fund now exceeds $4 million and can provide support for 37 undergraduate scholarships of $1,000-$6,000 each, 20 study-abroad scholarships of $1,000-$2,000, and 26 graduate fellowships from $3,000 to $7,500. The fellowships are named for significant people in the history of the Society.

For a more detailed history of Alpha Lambda Delta's first 75 years, download "75 Years of Celebrating Excellence," a history of our Society written on our 75th anniversary in 1999.