Lives of the fellows

George Birkbeck

b.10 January 1776 d.1 December 1841
MD Edin(1799) LRCP(1808)

George Birkbeck, M.D., was born 10th January, 1776, and was the son of a merchant and banker at Settle, in Yorkshire. He received his rudimentary education at a village school in the neighbourhood, and at a fitting age applied himself to the study of medicine, which he pursued first at Leeds, and subsequently in London. He then proceeded to Edinburgh, where he made the acquaintance and secured the friendship of Lord Brougham, Horner, Jeffrey, and others. He graduated doctor of medicine at Edinburgh 12th September, 1799 (D.M.I. de Sanguine), shortly after which he was chosen to succeed Dr. Garnet as professor of natural philosophy in the Andersonian Institution at Glasgow. He performed the duties of that office to the entire satisfaction of the trustees, as well as of his numerous hearers, and he soon instituted a gratuitous course of philosophical lectures for the especial use of the uneducated classes—persons engaged in the actual exercise of the mechanical arts, and whose humble station in early life had precluded them from the possibility of acquiring even the rudiments of scientific knowledge. These lectures abounded in simple but striking experiments, and were delivered in the most familiar language, so as to adapt them to the taste and capacity of such an audience. In this way he hoped to rouse a taste in the uneducated classes, for rational amusement as well as instruction; with the additional and almost necessary effect of weaning them from vicious habits and frivolous pursuits. Dr. Birkbeck’s success in this great undertaking is said to have been complete, and it called forth the most grateful acknowledgments from the parties he thus designed to benefit. In this course of lectures at Glasgow, we see the germ of that larger and more complete system of educating the working classes—Mechanics’ Institutions, to which Dr. Birk-beck devoted the best energies of his life. In 1822 he assisted in establishing the London Mechanics’ Institution in Chancery-lane, to which he nobly lent three thousand pounds for the erection of a suitable theatre for lectures. He was declared president of that institution, and continued to hold the office till his death.

Dr. Birkbeck quitted Glasgow in 1804, and after having delivered lectures to large and admiring audiences at Birmingham, Liverpool, and Hull, finally settled in London in 1805, and on the 11th April, 1808, was admitted a Licentiate of the College of Physicians. Soon after this he was elected physician to the General dispensary in Aldersgate-street. Of his merits as a practical physician we know little. Dr. Birkbeck died 1st December, 1841. "Hewas simple, unassuming,and artless in his manners; of unbounded benevolence, and inflexible integrity. He was beloved as well as esteemed by a large circle of private friends; admired, respected, and lamented by multitudes of all ranks, who had profited by his instruction or by his benevolence; and, I may add, he was almost adored in his domestic circle."(1) Dr. Birkbeck’s portrait has been engraved.

William Munk

[(1) A Brief Memoir of George Birkbeck, M.D., by Henry Clutterbuck, M.D, 8vo. Lond. 1842.]

(Volume III, page 59)

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