George Birkbeck – physician, philanthropist, founder of the London Mechanics Institute

To commemorate the College’s bicentenary in 2023, we’re showcasing 200 ‘Birkbeck Effects’ which capture the incredible stories of our vibrant and diverse community, highlighting their achievements and impact on the world. 

Born into a Quaker family in North Yorkshire, George trained as a doctor at Edinburgh and founded the London Mechanics Institute in 1823, when thousands gathered on the Strand to hear his ground-breaking speech on “the universal blessings of knowledge.”

His interest in the education of working men started when he wanted a particular machine to be made for his classes in natural philosophy and chemistry which he taught at the Anderson Institution, Glasgow in 1799. At the institution, he started a course of lectures on science, to which artisans were admitted for a low fee.

A pioneer in adult education, George had been struck by the ignorance of the basics of engineering and by the hunger for knowledge from workmen at a workshop visit and promptly opened his classes to mechanics, offering classes on Saturday evenings.

The success of the London institution led to the establishment of similar vocational training schools all over Britain, some of which developed into technical colleges.


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