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Delbourgo was educated at the University of East Anglia, Cambridge (Christ's College) and Columbia. He previously taught at McGill University 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 first book, A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders (Harvard, 2006), 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.
His latest book, Collecting the World (Penguin, 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.
Delbourgo has published magazine essays in English, French and German, including articles on contemporary art collecting and hoarding, and on Benjamin Franklin and the Cold War origins of American science historiography. 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 art by David Lynch, Lars von Trier and others. Delbourgo writes regularly for the Literary Review and Times Literary Supplement, and has also written for Apollo Magazine, Cabinet Magazine, the Times Higher Ed Supplement, the Chronicle Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Raritan Quarterly, The Atlantic and Neuesmuseum die österreichische museumszeitschrift.
His most recent scholarly article, "The Knowing World," outlines a new global approach to the history of science that is not centered on the western world. It was published in the journal History of Science in 2019.
- 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).
- "Delbourgo, James". History.rutgers.edu. Retrieved 2017-06-10.
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