Mark Mason

Gresham College

Christopher Wren was a professor, pennies were thrown at lectures and talks are all still free

How many people need to gather together before it becomes more likely than not that at least two of them will share a birthday? The answer might surprise you. It’s just one of the many intriguing facts that I’ve learned at Gresham College.

Gresham was founded in 1597, the brainchild of Thomas Gresham, king of what’s now called the Square Mile. He had also established the Royal Exchange, and decreed that rents paid by merchants there should fund free lectures open to anyone. The arrangement continues to this day. No need to enrol or book: anyone can turn up at any lecture that takes their fancy. So next time you buy a Paul Smith T-shirt or Tiffany ring at the Exchange, congratulate yourself on your contribution to public learning.

The logos of both institutions feature a grasshopper: this was Gresham’s emblem. One of his ancestors was abandoned in the countryside as a newborn baby, and was only discovered when a boy chased a grasshopper into the field. Gresham knew that without that insect he would never have existed.

From the start, lectures were delivered in English as well as Latin (Oxford and Cambridge used only the latter). Gresham also led its more famous cousins in having professors of geometry and astronomy; an early occupant of the second post was Christopher Wren. In 1660 the college gave birth to the Royal Society, which meant that, for a while, the Society’s members were known as ‘Greshamites’. Samuel Pepys attended a 1666 lecture at which one of the first-ever blood transfusions occurred. ‘There was a pretty experiment of the blood of one dog let out, till he died, into the body of another on one side, while all his own run out on the other side,’ he wrote.

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