Born to a Quaker family in Settle, North Yorkshire, Birkbeck went to Sedbergh School and trained as a doctor in Edinburgh in 1799. He was appointed professor of natural philosophy at the new Andersonian Institution (now part of Strathclyde University), founded according to the will of John Anderson (1726-1796), a professor at Glasgow University, who saw the need of the growing industrial revolution for a new form of technical education (in 1799 Count Rumford founded the Royal Institution in London on similar lines to Anderson’s).
In his five years there Birkbeck had the idea of holding free, Saturday evening public lectures on the 'mechanical arts' which proved very popular. Birkbeck continued to lecture on science in Birmingham, Liverpool and Hull, before finally settling into medical practice in London. The mechanics lectures in Glasgow continued after his departure, eventually leading to the formation in 1821 of a separate Mechanics' Institute.
J. C. Robertson and T. Hodgskin campaigned for a London Mechanics Institute; although they also had an additional interest on such institutions being vehicles for economic, social and political emancipation. Birkbeck offered his help and with the assistance of Francis Place they set about raising money and interest. After repeated arguments the emancipatory element was effectively toned down. The London Mechanics Institute was eventually formed at a public meeting held at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand attended by some 2000 people on November 11, 1823 [Kelly 1957]. Birkbeck became the first President of the Institute.
The concept was quickly adopted in numerous other cities, and abroad. There were 100 across the country by 1826 and 300 by 1841. The foundation of these Institutes meant that artisans and craftsmen could learn about science, art and economics; although opponents accused the reformers of ‘scattering the seeds of evil’, and Marxist commentators have questioned the motivations of their founders, and their actual effectiveness in this respect.
Birkbeck later wrote: "I beheld, through every disadvantage of circumstance and appearance, such strong indications of the existence of unquenchable spirit.... Why are these minds left without the means of obtaining that knowledge which they so ardently desire, and why are the avenues of science barred against them because they are poor? It was impossible not to determine that obstacle should be removed".
The London Mechanics Institute had several homes: Monkwell Street EC2 (now Monkwell Square) 1824, Southampton Buildings, Chancery Lane WC2 (1825-1885), and Bream Buildings, Fetter Lane EC1. Birkbeck is believed to have delivered one of the first lectures on the practical applications of limelight using a magic lantern. In a time before moving pictures, magic lantern shows were as popular as the cinema later became. He also helped create the first chemistry laboratory for undergraduates at University College London.
After Birkbeck's death the Institute changed its name to the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution, 1866, and to Birkbeck College in 1907. In 1920 it became a school of the University of London, having been involved in the London external degree system since the 1860s. The College moved to its present buildings, in Malet Street WC1 in 1951. In the entrance hall is preserved the foundation stone that Birkbeck laid for the lecture theatre of the Mechanics Institute in 1825, and the memorial tablet which was placed over the platform from which he lectured.
There is also a monument in St Akelda's church, Giggleswick, near Settle where he was born. Birkbeck was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, London.