Writer James Delbourgo who revealed the founding collection of the British Museum was acquired using the profits of slavery has won a top history of science book prize.

‘Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum’ reveals how collector and physician Sloane made his fortune by treating slaves and their owners, before marrying a plantation owner’s widow. His vast collection was amassed using a network of correspondents across the British Empire and, after his death, became the nucleus of the British Museum.

The British Society for the History of Science awarded Delbourgo its inaugural Hughes Prize, which is given to the best book in the history of science that is accessible to an audience of non-specialists.

The judging panel was impressed by the intensive research Delbourgo undertook to explore Sloane’s life, his role in the Enlightenment era, and how many aspects of social and cultural life were underpinned by slavery.

James Delbourgo said: “I am deeply honoured by the Hughes Prize and especially delighted given the complexity of the subject matter, which calls both for a defence of the Enlightenment’s legacy of free public institutions and a frank understanding of the origins of great museum collections.”

In the intensively researched and elegantly written book, Delbourgo explores the way modern science and collecting are intertwined with empire and slavery. Delbourgo uses these connections to paint a rich, complex and fascinating picture of the era. ‘Collecting the world’ is not an exaggeration, as Delbourgo shows how the British Empire absorbed and redefined, through its collections, the natural and cultural life of the world, and presented it in London for all to see.

Tim Boon, BSHS President and Head of Research at the Science Museum Group, said: “I am delighted that James Delbourgo’s ‘Collecting the World’ has been selected by our jury as the winner of the Hughes Prize. This book exemplifies the relevance of the historiographical approach of our discipline, history of science, to understanding the world, including its science and its museums, as we experience them today.

“The Jury for the BSHS Hughes Prize 2019 award this prize in recognition of James Delbourgo’s achievement in historical scholarship and its potential to contribute to important debates of today. The Jury also enthusiastically recommend this book to readers with interest in global history, museums and collecting, Restoration England, the history of the medical profession or the history of international trade.”

A photograph of James Delbourgo