Joseph Needham

Joseph Needham
Joseph Needham
Born Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham
6 December 1900 (1900-12-06)
London, England
Died 24 March 1995 (1995-03-25) (aged 94)
Cambridge, England
Alma mater Oundle School
Gonville and Caius College
Cambridge University
Occupation Historian, biochemist
Spouse Dorothy Moyle Needham (m. 1924–1987) «start: (1924)–end+1: (1988)»"Marriage: Dorothy Moyle Needham to Joseph Needham" Location:United Kingdom (linkback://
Lu Gwei-djen (m. 1989–1991) «start: (1989)–end+1: (1992)»"Marriage: Lu Gwei-djen to Joseph Needham" Location:United Kingdom (linkback://

Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham, CH, FRS[1], FBA (9 December 1900 – 24 March 1995), also known as Li Yuese (simplified Chinese: 李约瑟; traditional Chinese: 李約瑟; pinyin: Lǐ Yuēsè: Wade-Giles: Li Yüeh-Sê), was a British scientist, historian and sinologist known for his scientific research and writing on the history of Chinese science. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1941,[2] and as a fellow of the British Academy in 1971.[3] In 1992, the Queen conferred on him the Companionship of Honour and the Royal Society noted he was the only living person to hold these three titles.[4]



Early years

Needham was the only child of a London family. His father was a doctor and his mother, Alicia Adelaïde Montgomery (1863–1945), was a French-Irish composer and music teacher. Needham was educated at Oundle School, before receiving his bachelor's degree in 1921 from Cambridge University, master's degree in January 1925 and doctorate in October 1925. He had intended reading medicine but came under the influence of Frederick Gowland Hopkins and switched to Biochemistry.


After graduation, he worked in Hopkins's laboratory at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, specialising in embryology and morphogenesis. His 3-volume work Chemical Embryology, published in 1931, includes a history of embryology from Egyptian times up to the early 19th century, including quotations in most European languages. His Silliman memorial lecture of 1936 was published by Yale University under the title of Order and Life.[5] In 1939 he produced a massive work on morphogenesis that a Harvard reviewer claimed "will go down in the history of science as Joseph Needham's magnum opus", little knowing what would come later.[6]

Although his career as biochemist and an academic was well established, his career developed in unanticipated directions during and after World War II.

Three Chinese scientists came to work with Needham in 1937: Lu Gwei-djen (Chinese: 鲁桂珍; pinyin: Lu Gui-zhen), Wang Ying-lai (王應睞), and Chen Shi-zhang (沈詩章). Lu (1904–91), daughter of a Nanjingese pharmacist, taught Needham Chinese, igniting his interest in China's ancient technological and scientific past. He then pursued, and mastered, the study of Classical Chinese privately with Gustav Haloun.[7]

Under the Royal Society's direction, Needham was the director of the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office in Chongqing from 1942 to 1946. During this time he made several long journeys through war-torn China and many smaller ones, visiting scientific and educational establishments and obtaining for them much needed supplies. His longest trip ended in far west in Xinjiang at the caves in Dunhuang at the end of the Great Wall where the first printed copy of the Diamond Sutra was found. The other long trip reached Fuzhou on the east coast, returning across the Xiang River just two days before the Japanese blew up the bridge at Hengyang and cut off that part of China. In 1944 he visited Yunnan in an attempt to reach the Burmese border. Everywhere he went he purchased and was given old historical and scientific books which he shipped back to England through diplomatic channels and were to form the foundation of his later research. He got to know Zhou Enlai and met numerous Chinese scholars, including the painter Wu Zuoren (吳作人), and the meteorologist Zhu Kezhen who was later to send him in Cambridge crates of books, including the 2,000 volumes of the Gujin Tushu Jicheng encyclopedia, a comprehensive record of China's past.[8]

On his return to the west he was asked by Julian Huxley to become the first head of the Natural Sciences Section of UNESCO in Paris, France. In fact it was Needham who insisted that Science should be included in the organisation's mandate at an earlier planning meeting. After two years in which the suspicions of the Americans over scientific cooperation with communists intensified, Needham resigned in 1948 and returned to Gonville and Caius College, where he resumed his fellowship and his rooms, which were soon filled with his books. He devoted his energy to the history of Chinese science until his retirement in 1990, even though he continued to teach some biochemistry until 1966.

Needham's reputation recovered from the Korean affair (see below) such that by 1959 he was elected as president of the fellows of Caius College and in 1965 he became master (head) of the College, a post which he held until he was 76.

Science and Civilisation in China

In 1948, Needham, proposed a project to the Cambridge University Press for a book on "Science and Civilisation in China". Within weeks of it being accepted, the project had grown to seven volumes and it has expanded ever since. His initial collaborator was the historian Wang Ling (王玲), who he had met in Lizhuang and obtained a position for at Trinity. The first years were devoted to compiling a list of every mechanical invention and abstract idea that had been made and conceived in China. These included cast iron, the ploughshare, the stirrup, gunpowder, printing, the magnetic compass, and clockwork escapements, most of which were thought at the time to be western inventions. The first volume eventually appeared in 1954.

The publication received widespread acclaim which increased to the lyrical as further volumes appeared. He wrote fifteen volumes himself and the regular production of further volumes continued after his death in 1995. After volume III the volumes were split into parts and currently 24 volumes have been published. Successive volumes have been published as they became ready, which means that they have not appeared in the order originally contemplated in the project's prospectus.

Needham's final organising schema:

  • Vol. I. Introductory Orientations
  • Vol. II. History of Scientific Thought
  • Vol. III. Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and Earth
  • Vol. IV. Physics and Physical Technology
  • Vol. V. Chemistry and Chemical Technology
  • Vol. VI. Biology and Biological Technology
  • Vol. VII. The Social Background

See Science and Civilization in China for a full list

The project is still proceeding under the guidance of the Publications Board of the Needham Research Institute, chaired by Christopher Cullen.[9]

The Needham Question

"Needham's Grand Question", also known as "The Needham Question", is why China had been overtaken by the West in science and technology, despite its earlier successes. His works attribute significant weight to the impact of Confucianism and Taoism on the pace of Chinese scientific discovery, and emphasizes what it describes as the "diffusionist" approach of Chinese science as opposed to a perceived independent inventiveness in the western world. Needham held that the notion that the Chinese script had inhibited scientific thought was "grossly overrated".[10]

His own research revealed a steady accumulation of scientific results throughout Chinese history. In the final volume he suggests "A continuing general and scientific progress manifested itself in traditional Chinese society but this was violently overtaken by the exponential growth of modern science after the Renaissance in Europe. China was homeostatic, but never stagnant."[11]

Nathan Sivin, one of Needham's collaborators, while agreeing that Needham's achievement was monumental, suggested that the "Needham question", as a counterfactual hypothesis, was not conducive to a useful answer: "It is striking that this question – Why didn't the Chinese beat Europeans to the Scientific Revolution? – happens to be one of the few questions that people often ask in public places about why something didn't happen in history. It is analogous to the question of why your name did not appear on page 3 of today's newspaper."[12]

Evaluations and critiques

Needham's work has been criticized by some scholars for its strong inclination to exaggerate Chinese technological achievements and its propensity to assume a Chinese origin for the wide range of objects his work covered:

J Needham's (1971) monumental work on Chinese nautics offers by far the most scholarly synthesis on the subjects of Chinese shipbuilding and navigation. His propensity to view the Chinese as the initiators of all things and his constant references to the superiority of Chinese over the rest of the world's techniques does at times detract from his argument.[13]

Political involvement

Needham's political views were unorthodox and his lifestyle controversial. His left-wing stance was based in an idiosyncratic form of Christian socialism and after 1949 his sympathy with Chinese culture was extended to the new government. During his stay in China, Needham was asked to analyze some cattle-cakes which the Communists claimed had been scattered by American aircraft in the south of China at the end of World War II, and found they were impregnated with anthrax.[14] During the Korean War further accusations were made that the Americans had used biological warfare. Zhou Enlai coordinated an international campaign to enlist Needham for a study commission, tacitly offering access to materials and contacts in China needed for his then early research. Needham agreed to be an inspector in North Korea and his report supported the allegations. After post-cold war revelations that the Soviets had assisted the Chinese in setting up false scenarios, Needham's biographer Simon Winchester comments that "Needham was intellectually in love with communism; and yet communist spymasters and agents, it turned out, had pitilessly duped him." Needham was blacklisted by the U.S. government until well into the 1970s.[15]

In 1965, with Derek Bryan, a retired diplomat who he first met in China, Needham established the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding, which for some years provided the only way for the British to visit the People's Republic of China. On a visit to China in 1964 he was met by Zhou Enlai, but on a visit in 1972 he was deeply depressed by the changes under the Cultural Revolution.

Personal life

Needham was married to the biochemist Dorothy Moyle (1896–1987) in 1924 and they became the first husband and wife both to be elected as Fellows of the Royal Society.[5] Simon Winchester notes that, in his younger days, Needham was an avid gymnosophist and he was always attracted by pretty women.[16] When he and Lu Gwei-djen met in 1937, they fell deeply in love, which Dorothy accepted. The three of them eventually lived contentedly on the same road in Cambridge for many years. In 1989, two years after Dorothy's death, Needham married Lu, who died two years later. He suffered from Parkinson's disease from 1982, and died at the age of 94 at his Cambridge home. In 2008 the Chair of Chinese in the University of Cambridge, a post never awarded to Needham, was endowed in his honour as the Joseph Needham Professorship of Chinese History, Science, and Civilization.[17]

Honours and awards

In 1961, Needham was awarded the George Sarton Medal by the History of Science Society and in 1966 he became Master of Gonville and Caius College. In 1984, Needham became the fourth recipient of the J.D. Bernal Award, awarded by the Society for Social Studies of Science. In 1990, he was awarded the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize by Fukuoka City.

The Needham Research Institute, devoted to the study of China's scientific history, was opened in 1985 by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.


  • Science, Religion and Reality (1925)
  • Chemical Embryology (1931) C.U.P.
  • The Great Amphibium: Four Lectures on the Position of Religion in a World Dominated by Science (1931)
  • A History of Embryology (1934, 1959) C.U.P.
  • Order and Life The Silliman lectures (1936)
  • Perspectives in Biochemistry: Thirty-One Essays Presented to Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins by Past and Present Members of His Laboratory (1937)
  • Biochemistry and Morphogenesis (1942)
  • Time: The Refreshing River (Essays and Addresses, 1932–1942) (1943)
  • Chinese Science (1945) Pilot Press
  • History Is On Our Side (1947)
  • Science Outpost; Papers of the Sino-British Science Co-Operation Office (British Council Scientific Office in China) 1942-1946 (1948) Pilot Press
  • Science and Civilisation in China (1954-2008...) C.U.P. - 27 volumes to date
  • The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West (1969) Allen & Unwin
  • Within the Four Seas: The Dialogue of East and West (1969)
  • Clerks and Craftsmen in China and the West: Lectures and Addresses on the History of Science and Technology (1970) C.U.P.
  • Chinese Science: Explorations of an Ancient Tradition (1973) Ed Shigeru Nakayama, Nathan Sivin. Cambridge : MIT Press
  • Moulds of Understanding: A Pattern of Natural Philosophy (1976) Allen & Unwin
  • The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China (5 volumes) (1980-95) - an abridgement by Colin Ronan
  • Science in Traditional China : A Comparative Perspective (1982)
  • The Genius of China (1986) A one-volume distillation by Robert Temple Simon & Schuster
  • Heavenly Clockwork : The Great Astronomical Clocks of Medieval China (1986) C.U.P.
  • The Hall of Heavenly Records : Korean Astronomical Instruments and Clocks, 1380-1780 (1986) C.U.P.

See also


  1. ^ Gurdon, J. B.; Rodbard, B. (2000). "Joseph Needham, C.H. 9 December 1900 -- 24 March 1995: Elected F.R.S. 1941". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 46: 365. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1999.0091.  edit
  2. ^ a b Winchester 2008, pp. 28–29
  3. ^ a b Winchester 2008, p. 238
  4. ^ a b Winchester 2008, p. 250
  5. ^ a b Mansel Davies (27 March 2005). "Obituary: Joseph Needham". The Independent. Retrieved 2010-07-19. 
  6. ^ Winchester 2008, p. 50
  7. ^ Gregory, 'Joseph Needham,' in Peter Harman, Simon Mitton, (eds.) Cambridge scientific minds,Cambridge University Press, 2002 pp.299-312, p.305.
  8. ^ Winchester 2008, pp. 84–157,175
  9. ^ "Science and Civilisation in China". Needham Research Institute. Retrieved 2008-07-09. 
  10. ^ Grosswiler, Paul (2004). "Dispelling the Alphabet Effect". Canadian Journal of Communication 29 (2). Retrieved 22 January 2011. 
  11. ^ Joseph Needham (2004). Science and Civilisation in China. 7 part 2. 
  12. ^ Sivin, Nathan (1995). "Chapter VII: Why the Scientific Revolution did not take place in China – or didn't it?". Science in Ancient China. Aldershot, Hants: Variorum. ISBN 978-0-86078-492-0. 
  13. ^ Pierre-Yves Manguin: “Trading Ships of the South China Sea. Shipbuilding Techniques and Their Role in the History of the Development of Asian Trade Networks”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 36, No. 3. (1993), pp. 253-280 (268, Fn.26; Robert Finlay, "China, the West, and World History in Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China", Journal of World History 11 (Fall 2000): 265-303.
  14. ^ Robinson's reminiscences of Needham, in p. 235 of Needham, Joseph; Robinson, Kenneth G.; Huang, Jen-Yü (2004), Science and Civilisation in China, 7, part II General Conclusions and Reflections, Cambridge University Press 
  15. ^ Winchester 2008, p. 212 The incident has been further explored in Shiwei Chen, "History of Three Mobilizations: A Reexamination of the Chinese Biological Warfare Allegations against the United States in the Korean War," Journal of American-East Asian Relations 16.3 (2009): 213-247.
  16. ^ Winchester 2008, p. 23
  17. ^ Sterckx, Roel, In the Fields of Shennong: An inaugural lecture delivered before the University of Cambridge on 30 September 2008 to mark the establishment of the Joseph Needham Professorship of Chinese History, Science and Civilization. Cambridge: Needham Research Institute, 2008 (ISBN 0-9546771-1-0).


  • Lyall, Sarah. "Joseph Needham, China Scholar From Britain, Dies at 94", New York Times. March 27, 1995.
  • Winchester, Simon (2008). The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 13-ISBN 978-0-06-088459-8.  Also published as Gun, Book and Compass.
  • Sterckx, Roel, In the Fields of Shennong: An inaugural lecture delivered before the University of Cambridge on 30 September 2008 to mark the establishment of the Joseph Needham Professorship of Chinese History, Science and Civilization. Cambridge: Needham Research Institute, 2008 (ISBN 0-9546771-1-0).

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