It’s an ironic fact that a man who is now often referred to as “Dr. Johnson” never actually graduated from university. He was awarded three honorary degrees during his lifetime: from Oxford University in 1755 (just in time so that he could style himself “A.M.” – master of arts – on the title page of his dictionary); a doctorate from Trinity College Dublin in 1765; and another doctorate, again from Oxford, in 1775. But he never graduated from any university with any degree.

Johnson attended Oxford University, residing at Pembroke College, for about 13 months, from late October 1728 to mid-December 1729. He was 19 years old when he and his father set out on horseback from Lichfield, a distance of about 135 km south and east. It was the death of one of his mother’s cousins, who bequeathed her £40, that had enabled the family to have enough money to send him to university at all, and it was when the money ran out that his stay was shortened. Johnson never graduated, but there were several key incidents that took place at Oxford which defined or illustrate his character, and that estabish his short time as a student as an important part of his development.

There was a conference that was held at Pembroke College on the tercentenary of Johnson’s birth in 2009. I attended that and, as with other attendees — Johnson scholars, many pre-eminent, from around the world — I stayed in one of the rooms in the college. It was fantastic and an honour, and I experienced at times the same sense of reverence and awe I do when I’ve held a first edition of his Dictionary or his Rambler.

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