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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.

Further Information

the Full list of lectures in the series is as follows:

1) A History of Hair, 31 Oct 2019, 6pm, Barnard’s Inn Hall

The 2014 scandal over Rachel Dolezal’s lying about being of African-American heritage reignited debates about the politics of hair. It has been followed by numerous books with titles such as Don’t Touch My Hair! This lecture explores how hair has been seen as symbolic of empowerment, deviance, and identity. It looks at the role of big business in promoting grooming products (including scalp-damaging chemicals); the hair-grooming regulations of the military; and the political significance of facial hair. 

2) A History of the Eye, 21 Nov 2019, 6pm, Barnard’s Inn Hall

From ancient times to popular self-help books today, eyes have been viewed as “windows to the soul”. The interpretation of eye shape and colour have been used to distinguish between different degrees of “civilisation” (scientific racism), to identify personality traits, and to detect terrorists (recent research carried out by the CIA and the U.S. Transportation Security Administration). In some Asian societies, “double eyelid” surgery is popular. This lecture explores the politics of scientific theories about eyes. 

3) A History of the Breast, 16 Jan 2020, 6pm, Barnard’s Inn Hall

There has been a great deal of research on breast cancer, surgery, and implants. This lecture looks at changing ideas about the healthy breast. It explores notions of beauty, sexual pleasure, and age. Early maturation of girls, coupled with a greater focus on the breasts of older women, have had major effects on cultural expectations and experiences. The lecture also asks: what happens when we turn attention to the male breast? 

4) A History of the Penis and the Clitoris, 13 Feb 2020, 6pm, Barnard’s Inn Hall

Is the clitoris simply a female version of the male penis? Many scientists and biologists in the past thought so. It is only in recent decades that the physiology of the clitoris has become understood. What can debates about these two organs tell us about scientific knowledge and gender identities? How have ideas about the “ideal penis” changed since the eighteenth century? What effect have these shifts had on the way men and women know their bodies? 

5) A History of the Stomach, 19 Mar 2020, 6pm, Barnard’s Inn Hall

Vertical banded gastroplasty surgery (or stomach-stapling) has drawn attention in recent decades to the hidden, but unruly, stomach. This organ has been the focus of weight-control regimes for centuries, however. This lecture looks at nineteenth-century fads involving stomachs, including the medical prescription of tapeworms that were supposed to live in a person’s stomach and “eat” food on their behalf. It also explores ideas about the relationship between a person’s stomach and their personality. It traces these medical ideas through to the present. 

6) A History of the Foot, 14 May 2020, 6pm, Barnard’s Inn Hall

The science of feet and footprints has a long, yet often forgotten, history. In this lecture, I look at what people from the late eighteenth century to the present knew about toes, arches, heels, and ankles. What makes a beautiful foot? How have ideas of foot-beauty changed over time? Size, shape, colour, smell, and even taste have been important markers in the literature, science, and sociology of feet.

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