George Birkbeck was born in Settle, Yorkshire in 1776. When John Anderson, professor of physics at the University of Glasgow died in 1796, he left most of his money to provide an education for the "unacademic classes". This led to the establishment of Anderson's College in Glasgow.
In 1799 Birkbeck became professor of natural philosophy at the college and began providing free classes for working-class men in mechanics and chemistry.
In 1804 Birkbeck became a physician in London. He continued his interest in working class education and in 1824 became the first president of the London Mechanics Institute. This institution developed into Birkbeck College, a constituent college of London University.
George Birkbeck died in 1841.