James Delbourgo was born in Great Britain and educated at the University of East Anglia, Cambridge (Christ's College) and Columbia. He previously taught at McGill in Montreal, where he directed the program in History and Philosophy of Science; was Visiting Professor of History of Science at Harvard in 2016; and is an associate of that department. His research combines the history of science with imperial and global history and the history of collecting and museum studies.
His first book explored the practice of bodily electrical experimentation in colonial British America and the early United States, including but moving beyond the figure of Benjamin Franklin, and assessing the larger meaning of the American Enlightenment through transatlantic and Creole scientific culture. Since then, he has co-edited two collections of essays: one on Iberian, French and British perspectives on science and empire in the early modern Atlantic world; and the other on the role of go-betweens in making scientific knowledge across the globe during the decades around the turn of the nineteenth century. He has also published essays on underwater collecting and Caribbean salvage diving in the seventeenth century; on Jamaican natural history, cacao and the invention of milk chocolate; on the use of Newtonian optical theory and anatomical dissection to theorize African skin color in 1740s Virginia; on the dyeing, novelistic and chemical projects of the loyalist spy Edward Bancroft in Dutch Guiana during the era of the American Revolution; a co-edited focus section in the journal Isis on the scientific use of lists in the early modern era; and a co-edited special issue of Annals of Science on the history and philosophy of species in early modern science.
Delbourgo has published magazine essays in English, French and German, including articles on contemporary art collecting and hoarding in the Los Angeles Review of Books and Chronicle of Higher Education Review; and on Benjamin Franklin and the Cold War origins of American science historiography in the Raritan Quarterly. An essay on the relationship between curiosity collecting, abolitionism and slavery appeared in the catalogue for a recent exhibition called "Assoziationsraum Wunderkammer" in Halle, Germany, featuring work by David Lynch, Lars von Trier and others. Delbourgo is a member of the editorial board of the journal History of Science.
His latest book, Collecting the World (2017), explores global natural history collecting and the career of Hans Sloane, which culminated in the foundation of the British Museum in 1753. The book examines Sloane's career from his background in Ulster and voyage to the slave society of Jamaica to his creation of a network of collectors who gathered curiosities throughout the world, making possible the establishment of the British Museum. Published by Penguin in the UK and Harvard in the US and Canada, Collecting the World was named Book of the Week in the Guardian, London Times, Daily Mail and The Week Magazine, and one of Apollo Magazine's Books of the Year; featured in BBC Radio’s Today Programme and NPR’s Leonard Lopate Show, the British Museum and BBC History Magazine podcasts and Smithsonian Magazine; and reviewed in the New York Times, New York Review of Books, New Republic, Financial Times, the Spectator, the Economist, the Lancet, Daily Telegraph, Irish Times, Nature Magazine and Art Quarterly. Delbourgo has lectured on Sloane & the British Museum in the UK, Germany, Italy, France and across the US.
Delbourgo's John Carter Brown Library exhibit on Sloane's Jamaica voyage, entitled "Voyage to the Islands," (2012) is viewable online.
His teaching includes history of science, Atlantic world history, collecting and museums, the Enlightenment, and global history. For a graduate syllabus on 'Collecting the World: Assembling Objects from Antiquity to the Present', see here.
He is currently working on a variety of projects including the globalization of the early modern science narrative, entitled The Knowing World; and on the figure of the collector in a range of fields and geographies throughout history, entitled Who is the Collector?
COURSES REGULARLY TAUGHT
- 506:251 Science and Society
- 510:321 Age of Enlightenment
- 510:340 British Atlantic World
- 512:103 Development of US I
- Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum (Penguin and Harvard, 2017).
- The Brokered World: Go-Betweens and Global Intelligence, 1770-1820, co-editor with Simon Schaffer, Lissa Roberts and Kapil Raj (Science History Publications, 2009).
- Science and Empire in the Atlantic World, co-editor with Nicholas Dew (Routledge, 2007).
- A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America (Harvard, 2006).
- “Performances of Museum Storage,” in Museum Storage and Meaning: Tales from the Crypt, ed. Mirjam Brusius and Kavita Singh, Routledge Museum Studies Series: in press.
- “The Sordid History of Antiquities Collectors.” Review of Erin Thompson, Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present, Yale University Press, 2016: The Atlantic, 6 June 2016.
- “ pdf Rockstars und (sich) Bewegende Bilder” [“Rock Stars and Moving Pictures”] (414 KB) . Neuesmuseum die österreichische museumszeitschrift (2016): 48-53.
- “ pdf Neugier, horror und freiheit im wunderkammer (3.74 MB) .” Assoziationsraum Wunderkammer, herausgegeben von Nike Baetzner, eine Publikation der Franckeschen Stiftungen und der Burg Giebichenstein, Kunsthochschule Halle, Verlag der Franckeschen Stiftungen, Halle, Germany, 2015.
- “ pdf Art in the New Plutocracy (554 KB) .” Review of Charles Molesworth, The Capitalist and the Critic: JP Morgan, Roger Fry, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U-Texas Press, 2016), Chronicle of Higher Education Review: March 2016.
- " pdf Whatcha Got? (415 KB) " Reviews in American History (2014): 690-696.
- " pdf Atomic Franklin ," Raritan Quarterly 33 (2014): 27-39.
- " pdf Triumph of the Strange ," Chronicle Review, 13 December 2013.
- "Art is For Lovers," Los Angeles Review of Books, 7 July 2013.
- "Introduction" and "Listing People," in "Listmania": Isis Focus Section (Dec. 2012): 710-752.
- "The Newtonian Slave Body: Racial Enlightenment in the Atlantic World," Atlantic Studies 9 (June 2012): 185-208.
- "Collecting Hans Sloane," in From Books to Bezoars (London: British Library Books, 2012).
- “ pdf Divers Things: Collecting the World Under Water ,” History of Science 49 (June 2011): 149-185.
- “What’s in the Box?” Cabinet Magazine 41 (April 2011).
- " pdf Sir Hans Sloane's Milk Chocolate and the Whole History of the Cacao ," Social Text 29 (Mar. 2011): special issue on "interspecies."
- “Gardens of Life and Death,” British Journal for the History of Science 43, (Mar. 2010): 113-118.
- “Fugitive Colours: Shamans’ Knowledge, Chemical Empire and Atlantic Revolutions,” in The Brokered World, ed. Schaffer, et al. (2009).
- “Science,” in David Armitage and Michael Braddick, eds., The British Atlantic World, second edition (Palgrave, 2009).
- “The Electrical Machine in the American Garden” and introduction, Science and Empire in the Atlantic World, co-ed. Nicholas Dew (Routledge, 2007), 255-280, 1-28.
- “Slavery in the Cabinet of Curiosities: Hans Sloane’s Atlantic World,” website of the British Museum (2007).
- “Leviathan and the Atlantic,” History of Science 43 (Mar. 2005): 101-107.
- “Common Sense, Useful Knowledge, and Matters of Fact in the Late Enlightenment: The Transatlantic Career of Perkins’s Tractors,” William and Mary Quarterly 61 (Oct. 2004): 643-684.
- “Political Electricity: The Occult Mechanism of Revolution,” Common-Place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life 5:1 (Oct. 2004).
- Thomas J. Wilson Prize, Harvard University Press, for A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders, 2006.
- Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Standard Research Grant, “Beyond the New Atlantis,” 2005-2009.
- Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art Publication Grant, 2014.
- American Philosophical Society/British Academy Fellowship, 2013.
- Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, Fall 2013.
- Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, Fall 2011.
- Rutgers University, Center for Cultural Analysis, 2009.
- University of Cambridge: Visiting Fellow, CRASSH, Lent 2008.
- University of Pennsylvania: Dissertation Fellow, McNeil Center, 2001-2002.