Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Birkbeck, George

BIRKBECK, GEORGE, M.D. (1776–1841), the founder of mechanics' institutions, was the son of William Birkbeck, a banker and merchant of Settle, Yorkshire, where he was born 10 Jan. 1776. He studied medicine at Edinburgh and London, taking his degree of M.D. in 1799 at the university of the former city. Among his friends and fellow-students at Edinburgh were Brougham and Jeffrey. Soon afterwards, when only twenty-three years old, he succeeded Dr. Garnett as professor of natural philosophy at the Andersonian University (now Anderson's College), Glasgow, and while holding that post he commenced his efforts at popular education. Having had his attention drawn to the difficulties in the way of intelligent artisans who were anxious to acquire information on scientific matters, he established in 1800 courses of lectures to which working men were admitted at a low fee. These lectures were for long a successful department of the university, but eventually the 'mechanics' class' became in 1823 the 'Glasgow Mechanics' Institution,' apparently the first genuine institution of the sort. In 1804 he left Glasgow for London, and here he established himself as a physician, first in Finsbury Square, then in Cateaton Street, and afterwards in Old Broad Street. For some years he seems to have devoted himself entirely to the practice of his profession, in which he attained a considerable reputation, but the foundation of the Glasgow Institution above mentioned led to his once more taking up the cause of popular education. On the suggestion being made in the 'Mechanics' Magazine' that a similar institution should be provided for London, Dr. Birkbeck at once assumed the lead in the movement. He lent 3,700l. for the building of a lecture-room, and, having been elected president, delivered the opening address 20 Feb. 1824. It was thus that the London Mechanics' Institution was founded, which many years afterwards, in honour of its first president, was called the 'Birkbeck Institution.' In the enterprise he was associated with Lord Brougham, both of them being amongst the first trustees. For some time the new enterprise had but a fluctuating success; it was, however, assisted by the capital as well as the indulgence of its founder, and neither the ridicule of its enemies nor the quarrels of its promoters sufficed to prevent its eventual establishment. Dr. Birkbeck took an active interest in the fortunes of the institution till his death, 1 Dec. 1841. The institution is now (1885) one of the most successful organisations of its class in existence. These foundations in Glasgow and London were soon imitated throughout the country, and thus was established an organisation which prepared the way for the existing system of popular scientific instruction, as it is carried out by the Science and Art Department.

Dr. Birkbeck also took his share in other popular educational movements besides the one in which he was principally interested. He was a founder and one of the first council of University College, London (1827); he took a prominent part in the agitation for the repeal of the tax on newspapers (1835-6); and he—many years before any change was effected—endeavoured (in 1827) to promote a reform in the patent laws. He was a frequent lecturer, not only at his own institution, but at the London Institution and elsewhere, and was always ready to do his best to promote whatever he thought a useful application of science to practical purposes.

[J. G. Godard's Life of Dr. Birkbeck, 1884.]

H. T. W.