Skip to main content
Penn History

Philomathean Society: A Brief History Biographical Sketches of the 13 Founders

This history was researched and written in January 2006 by Clifton R. Hood

Thirteen members of the Class of 1815 founded the Philomathean Society on October second, 1813, “for the purpose founding a society for the advancement of learning.” At the time, these thirteen members, many of whom were under the age of eighteen, made up nearly all of the junior class.

These bulk of these young men came from prominent Philadelphia families. The background of only two young men, Cruse and Davidson, is not known. The fathers of the other eleven founders of Philo included prominent attorneys, merchants, and clergymen, as well as an industrialist and land speculator, a doctor, and a bookseller. Several were city or state officials and judges; one was a member of the United States Congress. A number of these fathers were well-known supporters of the American Revolution; only one is known to have supported the Tories.

Six of the young founders of Philo were the sons or grandsons of University of Pennsylvania trustees. The fathers of John Bayard, Henry Banning Chew, Edward and Henry Rawle were all Penn trustees; Benjamin Chew, Jr., and William Rawle were trustees at the time of the 1813 founding of the Philomathean Society. A grandfather and great uncle of William Augustus Muhlenberg had also served as Penn trustees. Thomas McKean Pettit had two grandfathers who served as Penn trustees; his maternal grandfather, Thomas McKean, was still a trustee in 1813.

The biographies of the thirteen founders show that these young men went on to accomplish much in their lives. One student died a year after graduation; two others died while still in their twenties, but one was already a lawyer and another was studying theology at the time of their deaths. The other founders became attorneys, judges, government officials, merchants, and clergymen, as well as a magazine editor, a Virginia planter, and a librarian and translator of ancient texts. Their achievements included serving as head of a Bank of the United States, head of the United States Mint in Philadelphia, the founder of St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City, and the founder of the New Orleans Public School System.