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Delbourgo was born in Britain to Italian parents and educated at the University of East Anglia, Cambridge (Christ's College), Penn 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. He is based in New York City.
His most recent book, Collecting the World (2017), explores global natural history collecting through the career of Hans Sloane, which culminated in the foundation of the British Museum in 1753. It is based on 15 years of research in Sloane's surviving London collections in collaboration with the British Museum. Published by Penguin in the UK and Harvard in the US, the book won four prizes, made four shortlists, and 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, Science Magazine 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, Jamaica and the US.
Recent magazine essays range in subject from Arab world space programs to Russo-Asian de-extinction projects; and different kinds of art and scientific collecting from early modern Korea to Gilded Age America and contemporary art. An essay on the relationship between curiosity collecting and Atlantic slavery appeared in the catalogue for Assoziationsraum Wunderkammer, an exhibition in Halle, Germany, which featured work by David Lynch and Lars von Trier. In addition to Cabinet Magazine, Apollo and The Atlantic, most recently Delbourgo has written for the Times Literary Supplement and Literary Review.
Delbourgo's first book explored electrical experimentation in colonial British America; he has published scholarly research essays on underwater exploration in the Caribbean, racial anatomy in the Enlightenment, the chemistry of dyes, the natural history of milk chocolate, the function of scientific lists, and numerous reviews. He has co-edited two volumes of essays on Atlantic world science and go-betweens in the history of science.
Current projects include The Knowing World, a new global approach to the history of science; The Dark Side of Collecting, on collectors across a range of fields, periods and disciplines, forthcoming from W. W. Norton & Company; and Divers Things, on the cultural history of underwater exploration, diving and swimming.
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): Leo Gershoy Award (AHA), Louis Gottschalk and Annibel Jenkins Prizes (ASECS), Hughes Prize (BSHS).
- 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): Thomas J Wilson Prize (HUP).
- "Delbourgo, James". History.rutgers.edu. Retrieved 2017-06-10.
https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674237483&content=bios https://histsci.fas.harvard.edu/people/james-delbourgo https://www.penguin.co.uk/authors/73569/james-delbourgo.html?tab=penguin-books https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0073275319831582