The University of Michigan, an encyclopedic survey ... Wilfred B. Shaw, editor.
University of Michigan.
Sigma Xi

The Society of the Sigma Xi is a national organization, the aim of which is the furtherance of scientific research by the banding together of workers who have contributed, or may be expected to contribute, to the advancement of knowledge in any science. It was founded at Cornell University in 1886 through the merger of two independent movements started there — one for the encouragement of pure science, which had originated in the field of geology and had later been broadened under the name Society of Modern Scientists, and the other a local engineering society called Sigma Xi. The new Sigma Xi soon became a national society designed to promote all scientific research, but, spreading first to schools of engineering, it emphasized the applied aspect of science until it had become established in large endowed and state universities of more general scope. At the end of fifty years, sixty-eight regular chapters were functioning, besides thirty-four clubs or associations not possessing the privilege of electing new members.

In May, 1903, thirty-five members of the faculty and graduates of the University of Michigan obtained the charter for a chapter of Sigma Xi. The local organization declined a proffered Greek letter in favor of the simple designation the "Michigan chapter." Under this name it was installed June 4, 1903, with Professor J. Playfair McMurrich as president. The Michigan chapter later relinquished to the University of Missouri all claim to the letter M or its equivalent.

At one of its earliest business meetings (March 24, 1904), before selecting any students for membership the society voted to admit women. This vote was promptly reconsidered, but promptly reaffirmed, and of the twenty-nine students and five faculty members elected at that meeting, six were women.

Election to membership was conducted, in the early years, by vote of the entire chapter upon recommendations from committees in the various colleges and schools. As the University rapidly Page  1936grew, this method became so unwieldy and erratic that in 1913 the council of the chapter was made the final electoral body. For many years regular nominations for membership were made only in the spring, with additional fall elections in the two years 1921 and 1922. At present nominations are made in November and initiation is in March.

The conditions of membership have changed from time to time. At first the election of students was based, as it was at most other institutions, principally upon scholarship. Undergraduate members were drawn from the upper 10 per cent of the seniors who had done most of their work in science. Phi Beta Kappa, whose University of Michigan chapter was installed in 1907, did not elect seniors pursuing chiefly scientific courses; in effect, therefore, the two honor societies were complementary. A formal proposal to refuse for Sigma Xi any senior who had been elected to Phi Beta Kappa was defeated in 1910, and again in 1919; nevertheless, several students were rejected in 1920 on the specific ground that they had previously been elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

From the first, research was one of the prime qualifications for the admission of graduate students and faculty members to Sigma Xi. These two groups also differed from each other in the qualifications set up. Graduate students who held faculty positions were being chosen as from the faculty in 1915, but at least since 1920 they have been elected as graduate students.

Because Sigma Xi was founded specifically to promote scientific research, high scholarship as a sole requirement for undergraduate admission gradually came to be regarded as an anomaly. Should not the distinction between undergraduate members, with their scholastic requirement only, and graduate members elected on the basis of research, be replaced by a distinction between persons admitted after having conducted research and those who merely gave promise of so doing? The Michigan chapter went on record in 1914, and again in 1916, as favoring the new classification "associate membership" for those elected on the basis of promise, and in 1920, after suitable enabling revisions had been introduced into the national constitution, adopted the distinction.

With the growing insistence on research for admission to Sigma Xi, election of seniors in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts declined, until, by 1920, it had almost ceased. Even associate membership was not usually bestowed on seniors in that College, although it remained open to seniors in the College of Engineering. This gradual abandonment of senior elections in the Literary College left the students of science without an honor society, a condition later remedied to some extent by a change in the rules of Phi Beta Kappa whereby that society elected purely on the basis of scholarship, without regard to subjects, and further, in 1926, by the establishment of a chapter of Phi Kappa Phi at the University.

As early as 1915 the Michigan chapter of Sigma Xi sought, in conjunction with Phi Beta Kappa, to inaugurate some plan by which recognition of intellectual attainments should be given at the Commencement. The idea then germinated bore fruit years later in the Honors Convocation, which has become an established annual event.

The general program of Sigma Xi at the University of Michigan consists of five meetings a year. As compared with its work at other institutions, it has been voluntarily restricted because of the prior existence of the Research Club, which was providing some members of Sigma Xi with an opportunity to meet with representatives of research in the humanities.

The several meetings of the year culminate Page  1937in the initiation banquet in the spring. Some of the meetings between 1921 and 1925 were held jointly with the Junior Research Club. Until 1928-29 the principal feature of each meeting other than the business session was an address of general scientific interest. Many of the meetings since the fall of 1928 have been visits about the campus to places of interest to research workers — the various laboratories, departments of the Library and Hospital, the dictionary offices, and museum collections, including the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments — where representatives of the departments concerned, acting as hosts, have discussed and demonstrated their work. The majority of speakers before the Michigan chapter have been members of the faculty or administrative staff, but more than one-third have been brought from other institutions.

The balance and range of scientific interests of the chapter can be inferred from the variety of subjects represented by its twenty-seven presidents, each of whom has served for two years. Seven have come from marine, electrical, chemical, sanitary engineering, and engineering mechanics, and seven from medical departments — bacteriology, biological chemistry, psychiatry, pathology, and anatomy. One president has been a pharmaceutical chemist, another an economic zoologist, and the other eleven were engaged in basic physical and natural sciences — mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, physics, zoology, psychology, paleontology, and mineralogy.

To the close of 1955-56, the Michigan chapter of Sigma Xi elected directly to membership 1,930 persons, promoted to membership 1,075 who had previously been elected associates either here or at other institutions, and elected 2,471 associate members who have not been subsequently advanced to membership in the Michigan chapter. The total number of different persons elected is, therefore, 5,476. Many others are or have been affiliated with the Michigan chapter after election elsewhere.