His work fuses approaches from science studies, colonial history and museum studies to understand the relation between knowledge, power and material culture in the Enlightenment and beyond.
He studied at the University of East Anglia, Cambridge, University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University before teaching at McGill University. He was visiting professor in the Department of History of Science at Harvard in 2016 and is an associate of the department.
In addition to scholarly journals, he has written about collecting, museums and science for the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, the Raritan Quarterly, Cabinet Magazine, the Times Higher Educational Supplement, the Chronicle Review and Apollo Magazine.
- Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum (Penguin and Harvard, 2017). Book of the Week in the Guardian; The Times (London); the Daily Mail; The Week (UK); an Apollo Magazine Book of the Year; Honorable Mention, Prose Awards, Association of American Publishers; Louis Gottschalk Prize, American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies; Shortlist, the Longman-History Today Prize, and the Kenshur Prize, Indiana University; Penguin Paperback 2018; Harvard Paperback 2019; Chinese and Taiwanese translations in progress.
This book explores global natural history collecting through the career of Hans Sloane, which culminated in the foundation of the British Museum in 1753, the world's first national public museum. It 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 across the globe, making possible the establishment of the British Museum. It draws on the histories of science, medicine and collecting, as well as Caribbean, imperial and global histories, and is based on extensive research in Sloane's surviving specimens, objects, manuscripts and catalogues in London's Natural History Museum, the British Museum and the British Library.
- 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 of Harvard University Press.
- "Delbourgo, James". History.rutgers.edu. Retrieved 2017-06-10.
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