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Birkbeck, George

An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age

Birkbeck, George 


medical doctor and educational reformer. Birkbeck trained in *medicine [18] at Edinburgh where he was a student of Joseph Black (1728–99) and Dugald *Stewart. After graduating, he took up the chair of natural philosophy at the Andersonian University in Glasgow. In 1800 he established a series of *lectures for local artisans designed to promote the application of science to practical purposes. The ‘mechanics' class’ which evolved from these lectures became the Glasgow Mechanics' Institute (1823) [see *popular education].

In 1804 Birkbeck moved to London and set up a successful medical practice. Throughout his career he was a friend, colleague, and collaborator of such prominent Edinburgh-trained medical and political reformers as Henry *Brougham, Francis *Jeffrey, Dugald Stewart, Leonard Horner (1785–1864), Peter Mark Roget (1779–1869), and John Playfair (1748–1819). He believed that the *Enlightenment [32] dream of the unceasing march of progress through knowledge was a valid goal and that working men, and even women, could share in this process.

Inspired by the success of the Glasgow Mechanics' Institute, Birkbeck founded a similar institution in London in 1823, and he was a leading spirit in the creation of many similar schemes throughout Britain. In 1827 he was one of the founders of University College London, which like the mechanics' institutes adopted the central features and pedagogic ideals of the Scottish university system.

Lisbeth Haakonssen