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Professor Joanna Bourke appointed 49th Gresham Professor of Rhetoric

Professor Bourke’s free lecture series, Exploring the Body, will examine the changing social, cultural, and political meanings given to the material body and reveal unexpected insights into what it means to be human.

Professor Joanna Bourke from Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology has been appointed as Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College, London’s oldest higher education institution.

The Professorship of Rhetoric at Gresham dates back to the College’s founding in 1597, in accordance with the will of Sir Thomas Gresham, builder of the Royal Exchange. In this role, Bourke will continue a 421-year-old tradition of giving free educational lectures to the general public within the City of London and beyond. Her lecture series, Exploring the Body, will explore the changing social, cultural, and political meanings given to the material body and reveal unexpected insights into what it means to be human.

Past Gresham Professors of Rhetoric include the poets Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis, the historian Sir Richard Evans, currently visiting Professor at Birkbeck, and the writer and literary scholar Sir Jonathan Bate.  

Professor Joanna Bourke said: “I am very excited to become Gresham Professor of Rhetoric because Gresham College’s four centuries of service to London, the UK, and the international community are an inspiration.  Like all professors at Gresham College, I strongly believe in the power of education to improve our world. People who attend lectures at Gresham College (or watch them online) are intellectually engaged thinkers: as the next Gresham Professor of Rhetoric, I am thrilled to be able to continue discussing topics of interest with them.

"I chose the theme of my first series of lectures – the body – for its considerable contemporary importance. In my series, I hope to reveal the historically varied ways that people have understood bodies. These variations are often surprising; always intriguing. The changing medical, scientific, moral, economic, and political meanings given to the material body have radical implications for human culture. Understanding these meanings tells us a great deal about what it means to be human.”

Sir Richard Evans, Provost of Gresham College and visiting Professor at Birkbeck, said: “We are thrilled that Professor Joanna Bourke has agreed to become Gresham’s next Professor of Rhetoric. She is known across the world for her ground-breaking work in history, opening up whole new areas of study, and she’s a superb lecturer and communicator with an international reputation. She has also won numerous awards for her writing and broadcasting.”

Bourke is a well-known social and cultural historian. She is a Fellow of the British Academy and outgoing Chair of its Modern History Section, as well as holding the Global Innovations Chair at the University Newcastle (Australia). She is the prizewinning author of thirteen books, including histories on modern warfare, medicine and science, psychology and psychiatry, the emotions, pain, what it means to be human and sexual violence. Her book An Intimate History of Killing won the Wolfson Prize and the Fraenkel Prize, and her books have been translated into various languages. She is a prolific public speaker and is College Orator at Birkbeck, as well as a frequent and award-winning contributor to TV and radio programmes. She was a Visiting Professor at Gresham College in 2018-19.

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