Born to a Quaker family (his father was a merchant and banker) in Settle, North Yorkshire, Birkbeck went to Sedbergh School and then completed his training as a doctor at the University of Edinburgh Medical School in 1799 with an MD degree. He is of the same Birkbeck family as early 19th-century Illinois pioneer, social reformer, author, publicist and agricultural innovator Morris Birkbeck. Before practising as a physician, however, he initially embarked on an academic career, being appointed professor of natural philosophy at the Andersonian Institution, which later became the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.
After mechanics started asking questions about the apparatus he used in his lectures, he had the idea of holding free, public lectures on the 'mechanical arts' (c 1800-1804). These Saturday evening events proved very popular and continued after his departure to London, leading to the formation in 1821 of the first Mechanics' Institute in Glasgow.
Working as a doctor in London in 1823, Birkbeck, along with Jeremy Bentham and MPs John Hobhouse and Henry Brougham came together to discuss the education for the working men of London. To achieve this they established the London Mechanics Institute in November 1823 - of which Birkbeck was the first president. The Mechanics Institute concept was quickly adopted in numerous other cities and towns across the UK and overseas, but his association with the ground-breaking London institution was marked by it being renamed the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution in 1866 (now, as Birkbeck College, part of the University of London).
References and sources
- Foster 1890, Birkbeck Pedigree p.87
- S.B. Foster, The pedigree of Birkbeck of Mallerstang and Settle, Braithwaite of Kendal, Benson of Stang End, (London: Collingridge, 1890), pp. 81-85.
- Chisholm 1911.
- George Birkbeck and the London Mechanics Institute - Infed.org
- Gilman, D. C.; Thurston, H. T.; Colby, F. M., eds. (1905). "Birkbeck, George". New International Encyclopedia (1st ed.). New York: Dodd, Mead.
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Birkbeck, George". Encyclopædia Britannica. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Media related to George Birkbeck at Wikimedia Commons