Dr James Dunk

    writer and historian



  • James Dunk

    historian and writer living and working on unceded Wangal country, in Sydney


    I write about mental illness and mental health, planetary illness and planetary health.






    Planetary Health and History

    From settler psychology to new visions of health in the Anthropocene


    Video by Chaylon Fraser for the Faculty of Science, University of Sydney
  • Stories of the City

    I worked with eleven students from my urban history course to tell their stories of Sydney + a poetry reading by Toby Fitch from his book Sydney Spleen. This event was held as part of History Week 2021.

  • Winner, Australian History prize, NSW Premier's Awards 2020
    Shortlisted, University of Queensland Non-Fiction Award, QLD Literary Awards 2020
    Shortlisted, Ernest Scott Prize 2020
    Shortlisted, Kay Daniels Award 2020


    "Bedlam at Botany Bay offers readers a strikingly original re-reading of early colonial Australia. Beautifully crafted and deeply empathetic, this is a book with genuine literary and scholarly merit. It makes a significant and invigorating impact on the field of Australian history, and deserves to be read and discussed for many years to come." – Judge's Comments, New South Wales Premier's Awards 2020


    "A brilliant and compassionate study. Vivid true stories spill out of these pages, illuminating colonial society with the myriad flares of private suffering." – Tom Griffiths AO


    "by insisting that we should examine trauma and madness in their wider social contexts, by voyaging into emotional history and the predicaments of both the insane and the people who cared for them, James Dunk has opened promising new ways to understand the histories of empires and colonies." – Grace Karskens

  • Reviews

    Judge's Comments: New South Wales Premier's Awards 2020

    James Dunk’s Bedlam at Botany Bay is a truly innovative book. We are presented with a challenging and confronting history of madness in the early years of New South Wales, constructed from diverse sources including governors’ letters, colonial secretaries’ correspondence, institutional records and private letters. Dunk reveals extraordinary details about how colonial structures, life and circumstances drove people mad, and he invites us to reflect on the implications of the exceptionally coercive nature of a penal colony.


    Bedlam at Botany Bay draws on a rich scholarship in exploring how the development of the British Empire influenced this aspect of colonial social and political history. We are reacquainted with many familiar names such as Macquarie, Darling and Macarthur, places like the Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum (Gladesville), and events including the Rum Rebellion. However, Dunk prompts us to think about this well-trawled time and place in new ways through stories of madness articulated and recorded at the time.


    Combining meticulous research and compelling writing, James Dunk’s  Bedlam at Botany Bay  offers readers a strikingly original re-reading of early colonial Australia. Beautifully crafted and deeply empathetic, this is a book with genuine literary and scholarly merit. It makes a significant and invigorating impact on the field of Australian history, and deserves to be read and discussed for many years to come.

    New South Wales Premier's Awards 2020

    Judge's Comments: Ernest Scott Prize 2020

    It’s the history of New South Wales, but not as we know it. The names are familiar, as are the events – Macarthurs, Wentworths, Blaxland, Bligh, rebellion, inquiries, select committees – but by paying close attention to the ‘strong personalities’, ‘eccentricities’ and ‘unfortunate endings’, Dunk puts us in the mirror house, where all that was familiar now feels strange and illuminating of quite a different colony. This is more than a collective biography, a history of whitefella madness, or the bureaucratic and jurisdictional journey to self-government. Dunk’s book reminds us that there is nothing inevitable about how things turn out: this is a rare feat in history-writing.

    Ernest Scott Prize Shortlist

    Writing Bedlam

    I wrote a short essay about writing Bedlam at Botany Bay. Read it here.

    Dunk’s book is a lyrical, humane and creative approach to writing the history of madness in and out of the asylum in Australia. His introduction and conclusion are master classes in good historical writing, reminiscent at times of the great Geoffrey Blainey in their fluency and attention to the tiny hooks of experience that catch the attention and imagination.

    Philippa Martyr, Social History of Medicine (paywall)

    Bedlam at Botany Bay is a beautifully written and evocative account of the fragility and violence of the early colonial years of New South Wales. Its central theme is the eruption and management of madness in the early decades of the colony but in this remarkable account madness also becomes a lens through which to explore deeper emotional, personal and social undercurrents in colonial society: the trauma of being forcibly transported across the world; the travails of long sea voyages; the fracturing of family ties; the tenuousness of colonial settlement; the threat posed by an alien environment; the political upheaval of the early years of settlement that set colonist against colonist, convict against master and soldier against governor; and the violence attending dispossession of the first nations people they encountered.

    Stephen Garton, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society (paywall)

    The prose is exceptional. There is a clarity of expression that allows the reader to engage deeply with the chaos that is so central to our conceptions of madness.

    Rachel Franks, Dictionary of Sydney

    Dunk’s prose is vivid, reflective and poetic. Thinking through the links between madness and history, he writes: ‘It seems to me that acute madness…is never less than a private suffering – something internal, perhaps incommunicable,which nevertheless clashes with the world. As it does, it opens a vein of history’ (5).

    This is not a narrowly focused study but an ambitious social and political re-reading of the colony

    from 1788 to around 1850, looking carefully at the ‘fault lines of society’ that madness throws

    into high relief, as well as the fortunes and fates of the men and women who were or went mad.

    Grace Karskens, Australian Historical Studies

    There is tremendous value in Dunk's book for thinking historically about the role of medicine in establishing social order. While the book begins with a folk understanding of madness that escapes control, its concluding chapters show how 'professionalising doctors displaced lay therapies'. Medicine became part of the moral project of colonisation that sought to control the 'perilous chaos' that madness inflicted on the social and political body, and treat it as an illness.

    Christopher Mayes, Health and History

  • News


    Historians on Planetary Futures

    In February I'll be presenting my work to the Historians on Planetary Futures seminar series run out of New Earth Histories and the Laureate Centre for History & Population at the University of New South Wales.



    Keynote Panel: Innovation in Health and Medicine
    Delighted to be invited to speak about planetary health on a keynote panel with Charlotte Greenhalgh, Elizabeth Roberts-Pedersen and Tatjana Buklijas at the ANZSHM Biennial Conference, 'Innovation in Health and Medicine,' at the University of Newcastle, 1-4 December 2021.



    Australian Academy of Humanities Annual Symposium

    The Australian Academy of Humanities Annual Symposium is an important annual meeting of Australian humanities scholars. This year’s theme is Culture, Nature, Climate: Humanities and the Environmental Crisis, and I'll be talking about my research on mental health and ecological distress.



    Emotion, Anxiety, Environmental History

    Together with wonderful colleagues in environmental history Margaret Cook, Nancy Cushing, and Rebecca Jones, I'll be talking about histories of ecological anxiety at the panel Anxiety and Emotion in Environmental History. Moderated by Andrea Gaynor and sponsored by the Sydney Environment Institute and Australian and Aotearoa Environmental History Network. Register here.



    The City of Sydney

    I'll be giving a talk for the City of Sydney about my book, Bedlam at Botany Bay. Register here.



    The Incoherent and Accidental: Blackheath History Forum

    I'll be speaking to the wonderful community of historians at the BlackHeath History Forum, on 'The Incoherent and Accidental: Writing the History of Madness.' Watch me here.



    Words and Poetry: Stories of the City

    I'm delighted to be curating an evening of talks by students of Sin City, the urban history course I've been teaching at the University of Sydney, for History Week 2021. Poetry reading by Toby Fitch from his new book Sydney Spleen. You can watch along here.



    Byron Writers Festival (cancelled due to covid-19)

    I'll (now not) be at two panels in Byron this winter: Traumatic States of Mind: Colonial History (with Judy Atkinson and Mark McKenna) and Drugs, Magness and the Damage Done (with Benjamin Gilmour and Antony Loewenstein).



    Mayhem and Margins

    I'll be speaking at a special session of the Sydney Writer’s Festival together with the other winners of the NSW Premier's History Awards: Histories of Mayhem and Margins.



    Write Around the Murray Festival

    I'll be speaking at two events during this online festival – an author talk at 2.30pm and a presentation in the panel Past Tense: History: What is it good for? Also presenting are Megan Davis, Tony Birch, Lucy Treloar, Chris Flynn, and the panel will be chaired by Clare Wright. Both events are free, but registration is essential.



    Pictures of Madness

    Six historians will be giving flash talks at this online event for this year's History Week, hosted by History Council of New South Wales. Each talk will be tied to an image.



    NSW Premier's History Awards

    I was thrilled to receive the Australian History Prize at the NSW Premier's History Awards – awarded for a major work of non-fiction on Australian history.



    Psychiatry and its Discontents

    My review of Andrew Scull's latest book, Psychiatry and its Discontents, appears in the May edition of Australian Book Review (paywall).



    Ernest Scott Prize

    Bedlam at Botany Bay shortlisted for the Ernest Scott Prize, for the most distinguished contribution to Australian or New Zealand History, or the colonisation of those places.



    One Health Aotearoa Symposium, Wellington

    Planetary health researchers are exploring links between human health and the health of the planet's natural systems; this paper asks whether the mental health link might be more challenging, but also more productive.



    Charles Perkins Centre Exceptional Contribution Award 2019

    I was awarded a prize by the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney for interdisciplinary research, including two articles in the New England Journal of Medicine. The CPC is a superb meeting place of the biomedical sciences, humanities, and social sciences – exactly the sort of exchange we urgently need.



    New Earth Histories

    In December a brilliant group of scholars will be hosted by Alison Bashford's New Earth Histories Research Program at the University of New South Wales, comparing origin stories, histories of planetary science, and cosmologies. I'll be speaking about calls for a new Western cosmology amongst psychologists concerned at the parlous relations between humans and other species.



    Writing the history of the interior

    I'll be speaking on this theme as part of a keynote panel at the University of Sydney history postgraduate conference, Writing History.



    Old Savoy Theatre

    Author talk, Newcastle & Hunter District Historical Society, Old Savoy Theatre, New Lambton.



    Memories of the Future

    As part of History Week 2019, Memory and Landscape, I'll be curating an evening of short talks and soundscape music, laying down memories for the future of places which are slipping away. Hosted by my good friends at Cafe Shenkin, with music by Asher Graieg-Morrison and words by JAMES FINDLAY, JARROD HORE, EMMA KLUGE, CATHY PERKINS, HOLLIE PICH, MARAMA WHYTE and JAMES DUNK.

  • Current projects

    By Joseph Martin Kronheim and Company (National Library of New Zealand) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

    Psychology as if the whole earth mattered

    As evidence of planetary-scale ecological disruptions began to mount in the late twentieth century, some argued that these were symptoms of a deep psychological problem.

    Image: Wikimedia Commons: Atomic_cloud_over_Hiroshima_(from Matsuyama) 509th Operations Group

    By Joseph Martin Kronheim and Company (National Library of New Zealand) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

    Mapping the conceptual history of planetary health

    A collaborative project between the University of Sydney, Monash University, Harvard University, and KTH Stockholm

    Image: NASA/USGS Landsat; Geoscience Australia. Source: Landsat gallery.

  • Psychology as if the whole earth mattered: towards a planetary mental health

    IN THE FACE OF DEVELOPING ECOLOGICAL CRISES, argued Anthony McMichael in 1990, the real driver of action would be human health, and those who wished to protect it would need to learn to ‘anticipate the future’. That perspective has given way to planetary health, a complex, globally framed epidemiology – or a human ecology pressed by crisis conditions into urgent focus on health outcomes. The new field looks to build a sufficient evidence basis for the radical reconfiguration of agriculture, energy, transportation, housing, and other systems in a deteriorating planetary environment – to protect human health by preserving the health of natural planetary systems. While advocates emphasise the significance of mental health within their framework, early projects and outcomes under its rubric have concentrated on physical health. One reason for this may be that the systems thinking which underpins the field has led to profound challenges when applied to psychological problems.


    This historical project traces the emergence of ‘planetary mental health’ formulations from the 1980s, when psychiatrists and psychologists active in the medical antinuclear advocacy movement formed their own organisations. They studied not only the potential psychological effects of nuclear war (as their peers did with bodily effects), but the psychology of living under its threat, especially as it presented in children. Some, inspired by developments in systems thinking, went further, investigating the psychological factors which had produced and continued to sustain weapons of such unruly power, diagnosing forms of psychopathology, or ‘nuclear madness’. As the Cold War drew to a close, these researchers applied the frameworks they had developed to the ecological crisis revealed by the landmark UN World Commission on Environment and Development, and begun to map the health effects of deteriorating planetary systems. Drawing on the interdisciplinary insights of human ecology, psychological researchers presented a challenging hypothesis under the banner of ‘ecopsychology’ which prefigured later discussions of the ‘anthropocene’. Humans, they argued, by imagining themselves separate from other species, had developed a fundamental psychopathology, of which the destruction of their ‘life-support systems’ was a deadly symptom and testament. So too the anxiety, despair and ‘solastalgia’ which appear increasingly endemic in the anthropocene are symptoms not only of environmental deterioration but of that fundamental dislocation.


    This project will compare the planetary health and global mental health frameworks with these insights from human ecology and ecopsychology to explore the vectors and boundaries of the systems thinking which has become increasingly dominant in biomedical thinking since the mid-twentieth century, and the disciplinary resistance to overarching questions – about human selves and the species – which have emerged both from the study of deep evolutionary time and from the modelling of deteriorating futures.

  • Past projects

    Memories of the Future

    a planet burning hot, breathing ragged

    To heal our planet we must know it more deeply.

    Seven Sydney historians, and local musician Asher Graieg-Morrison, shared stories of places that have formed us, to re-enchant the world and lay down memories for the future.

    Edward Charles Close, 'Sydney in all its glory’, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

    The politics of madness in a penal colony

    Madness emerges in strange places, and upsets everything.

    My doctoral thesis uses madness to reveal the workings of colonialism in New South Wales from 1788-1856

    A curious combination of leisure and work

    A history of beach mission in Australia, 1888-1988

    In my honours thesis, I explore the ways in which summertime Christian missions to holidaying families took the form of leisure but also undermined it

  • Academic writing


    Bedlam at Botany Bay (NewSouth, 2019).

    • Winner, Australian History prize, NSW Premier's Awards 2020
    • Shortlisted, University of Queensland Non-Fiction Award, Queensland Literary Awards 2020
    • Shortlisted, Ernest Scott Prize 2020
    • Shortlisted, Kay Daniels Award 2020

    Knowledge Making: Historians, Archives and Bureaucracy, with Barbara Brookes (Routledge, 2020).

    Articles and book chapters

    Assembling Planetary Health: Histories of the Future,’ with Warwick Anderson, in Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves, edited by Samuel S. Myers and Howard Frumkin (Island Press, April 2020): 17-35.


    Sounding the Alarm on Climate Change, 1989 and 2019’, with David S. Jones, New England Journal of Medicine (11 December 2019). doi:10.1056/NEJMp1913916.


    Human Health on an Ailing Planet — Historical Perspectives on Our Future’, with David S. Jones, Anthony G. Capon, and Warwick H. Anderson, New England Journal of Medicine 381:778-82 (22 August 2019): 778-82. doi:10.1056/NEJMms1907455.


    Work, Paperwork, and the Imaginary Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum, 1846’, Rethinking History 22, no. 3 (2018): 326-55. doi:10.1080/13642529.2018.1486956.


    The Liability of Madness and the Commission of Lunacy in New South Wales, 1805-12’, History Australia 15, no. 1 (2018): 130-50. doi:10.1080/14490854.2017.1413942.


    Authority and the Treatment of the Insane at Castle Hill Asylum, 1811-1825’, Health and History 19, no. 2 (2017): 17-40. doi:10.5401/healthhist.19.2.0017.

    Co-edited Special Issues

    ‘Bureaucracy, Archive Files and the Making of Knowledge’ [with Barbara Brookes], Rethinking History 22, no. 3 (2018): 281-88. doi:10.1080/13642529.2018.1489578.


    Incarceration, Migration, Dispossession and Discovery: Medicine in Colonial Australia’ [with Angeline Brasier], Health and History 19, no. 2 (2017): 1-16. doi:10.5401/healthhist.19.2.0001

    Book and Exhibition Reviews

    A Science of Our Own: Exhibitions and the Rise of Australian Public Science by Peter H. Hoffenberg (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019)’ [Book Review], Isis: Journal of the History of Science Society 112, no. 1 (March 2021): 193-94.


    The Anthropocene and the Humanities: From Climate Change to a New Age of Sustainability by Carolyn Merchant (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020)’ [Book Review], Social History of Medicine (27 January 2021).


    Colonizing Madness: Asylum and Community in Fiji by Jacqueline Leckie (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2020)’ [Book Review], Journal of Pacific History (2 February 2021).


    The Routledge History of Madness and Mental Health’, edited by Greg Eghigian (Routledge, 2017) [Book Review], Health and History 21, no. 1 (2019): 90-94. doi:10.5401/healthhist.21.1.0090.


    ‘Louella McCarthy and Kathryn Weston, curators, “Caring for the Incarcerated”, University of Wollongong Library, Wollongong [Exhibition Review]’, History Australia 14, no. 4 (2017): 662-65. doi:10.1080/14490854.2017.1389255.


    'Insanity, Identity and Empire: Immigrants and Institutional Confinement in Australia and New Zealand, 1873-1910', by Catharine Coleborne (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), in Social History of Medicine (23 June 2016), doi 10.1093/shm/hkw069.


    'Illness in Colonial Australia', by F. B. Smith (North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2011), in Journal of Australian Colonial History, vol. 15 (2013), pp. 226-27.

  • Literary essays and reviews

    Book Reviews

    'Mad by the Millions: Mental Disorders and the Early Years of the World Health Organization by Harry Yi-Jui Wu (MIT Press, 2021),’ Australian Book Review, no. 434 (September 2021).


    ‘Psychiatry and its Discontents’ by Andrew Scull (University of California Press, 2019), Australian Book Review, no. 421 (May 2020).


    ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Communicated Disease’ by Simon Chapman and Fiona Crichton (Sydney University Press, 2017), Australian Book Review, no. 415 (October 2019): 27-28.


    The Environment: A History of the Idea’ by Paul Warde, Libby Robin and Sverker Sörlin (Johns Hopkins, 2018), Australian Book Review, no. 408 (January 2019).


    ‘The Memorandoms of James Martin: An Astonishing Escape From Early New South Wales’ ed. Tim Causer (UCL Press, 2017), Australian Book Review, no. 397 (2017).


    ‘Dr. James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time’ by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield (Oneworld Publications, 2016), Australian Book Review, no. 388 (2017): 49.


    “A vision of past savagery that lies maddeningly between truth and fiction”: James Dunk reviews Sarah Drummond’s 'The Sound', Rochford Street Review, no. 19 (September 2016).


    'Finding Sanity: John Cade, Lithium and the Taming of Bipolar Disorder', by Greg de Moore and Ann Westmore, in Australian Book Review, no. 386 (2016): 66.


    'The Profilist' by Adrian Mitchell, in Australian Book Review, no. 378 (January-February 2016), p. 47.


    'Seasons of War' by Christopher Lee, in Australian Book Review, no. 370 (March 2015), p. 60.


    'The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon' by Laure Murat, translated by Deke Dusinberre (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), in Australian Book Review, no. 369 (March 2015), p. 58.

    Film Reviews

    Partisan, dir. Ariel Kleiman, in Arts Update, no. 101.

    Essays and other writing

    'Unease and Disease: Redrawing the Boundaries of Colonial Madness,' Griffith Review 72: States of Mind (May 2021): 122-31.


    How Doctors Convinced the World the Planet Was Worth Fighting For,' The Conversation (26 August 2019).


    ‘The Cabin in the Woods,' SL Magazine (May 2019): 28-31.


    ‘Writing Bedlam,' newsouthpublishing, 27 May 2019.

  • Editing work

    Hans Pols, Tending to the Nation: Medicine, Nationalism and Decolonisation in the Dutch East Indies and Indonesia, manuscript submitted to Cambridge University Press [Editor]


    Warwick Anderson, Barbara Brookes and Miranda Johnson, eds. Pacific Futures: Past and Present, in preparation for University of Hawai’i Press [Copy-editor]


    Warwick Anderson and Ricardo Roque, eds., special issue of the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies [Copy-editor]


    Warwick Anderson and Ian R. Mackay, Intolerant Bodies: A Short History of Autoimmunity (Durham: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014) [Proofreading and Index]

  • Brief resume

    BA PhD (Sydney)

    2018– Research Fellow, University of Sydney

    I am a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History at the University of Sydney, working on histories of planetary health, depth psychology, and human ecology.

    2018– Conjoint fellow, University of Newcastle

    2013-17 Research Associate, University of Sydney

    I managed the the laureate research program Race and Ethnicity in the Global South, led by Professor Warwick Anderson.

    Awards and Grants

    Australian History Prize, NSW Premier's History Awards 2020 (Bedlam at Botany Bay) [$15,000].


    Charles Perkins Centre Exceptional Contribution Award, 2019 [$2000].


    Harvard Mobility Scheme Grant, Office of Global Engagement, University of Sydney, 2019 [$8,108].


    AHA-Copyright Agency Early Career Mentorship Scheme (with Catharine Coleborne, University of Newcastle), 2018 [$1,500].


    Jill Roe Prize, Australian Historical Association, 2016.


    EU Erasmus+ Mobility Grant, 2016 [EUR 2,780].


    Australian Postgraduate Award, 2011–14 [$84,307].

  • Contact

    Department of History
    Quadrangle A14
    University of Sydney NSW 2006