Skip to main content


D. Graham Burnett

Professor, Department of History, Princeton University

Fellow, Society of Fellows, SOF/Heyman, Columbia University (1997–1999)

Headshot of D. Graham Burnett

D. Graham Burnett is a historian of science, a writer/editor, and a 2013-2014 Guggenheim Fellow in residence as a Research Fellow at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City. The recipient of a 2009 Mellon New Directions Fellowship, he is currently working on connections between the sciences and the visual arts.

Professor Burnett graduated from Princeton in 1993 as the salutatorian and a recipient of the Pyne Prize. With the support of a Marshall Scholarship he completed a Ph.D. in the History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University (1997 [2001]), where he was a member of Trinity College. Burnett was awarded the 1999 Nebenzahl Prize in the History of Cartography, and he has been editorially involved with the History of Cartography Project. Before joining the Princeton faculty in 2001 he taught at Yale and was a Mellon Fellow in the Humanities at Columbia University (1997–1999) and an inaugural fellow in the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library (1999–2000). He held the Christian Gauss Fund University Preceptorship in 2006.

His interests include the history of natural history and the sciences of the earth and the sea from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries, including cartography, navigation, oceanography, and ecology/environmentalism. He has also worked on Charles Darwin, the history of exploration, and early modern optics. His first book, Masters of All They Surveyed: Exploration, Geography, and a British El Dorado (2000), examines the relationship between cartography and colonialism in the nineteenth century. He is also the author of Descartes and the Hyperbolic Quest (2005), a monograph on Cartesian thought and seventeenth-century lens making, and A Trial By Jury (2001), a narrative account of his experience as the jury foreman on a Manhattan murder trial.

His book Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature (2007) won the 2007 Hermalyn Prize in Urban History and the New York City Book Award in 2008. The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century is his most recent book. Burnett has written essays and reviews for a variety of publications, including the New Yorker, Harpers, the Economist, the American Scholar (where he served two terms on the editorial board), Daedalus (where he was a contributing editor), the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and the New Republic. In 2008 he became an editor at the Brooklyn-based art magazine Cabinet, and he also serves on the editorial board of Lapham's Quarterly.

He is a member of the New York Institute for the Humanities, and at Princeton he is affiliated with the Program in History of Science, the Law and Public Affairs Program, the Center for Architecture, Urbanism, and Infrastructure, and the Princeton Environmental Institute.