Pi Lambda Theta was founded in 1910 through the efforts of Dr. W.W. Charters, Dean of Education at the University of Missouri. Charters was himself a member of the Gamma Chapter of Phi Delta Kappa, an all male honorary organization, but he was also interested in establishing a similar organization for women. Charters invited a small group of women at the University of Missouri to discuss the possibility of setting up a national honor and professional association for women in education. Six other schools followed Missouri's lead and established chapters between 1912 and 1916.
The Johns Hopkins chapter was founded around 1926 by Florence Bamberger, the first woman promoted to the rank of full professor in the Department of Education at Hopkins. She published numerous articles covering a wide variety of topics, including childhood education, vocational training, and women's education and served as Dean of the School of Education at Hopkins in the 1940s. The Florence E. Bamberger Scholarship for women students in education was established in the 1940s.
During World War II members of Chi Chapter of Pi Lambda Theta at Johns Hopkins University were involved in defense activities, serving in the Red Cross, as air-raid warden instructors, workers in the air-raid warning center, nurses aides, or registrars at local draft boards. Through auctions and shows sponsored by Chi Chapter, money was raised for the Red Cross. After the war Pi Lambda Theta promoted special projects on teacher recruitment and retention, aid to schools in devastated areas, teacher exchange, and collaboration with the United Nations.
Although it began as a women's organization, Pi Lambda Theta began admitting men in 1974 following ratification of an amendment by the national organization's executive committee.