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Joseph Needham

Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham (December 9, 1900–March 24 1995) was a British biochemist best known for his works on the history of Chinese science. He was elected a fellow of both the Royal Society and the British Academy. In China, he is known mainly by his Chinese name Li Yuese (李约瑟; Pinyin: Lǐ Yuēsè: Wade-Giles: Li Yüeh-Sê).


Early career

Needham was the only child of a Scottish family in London: his father was a doctor and his mother, Alicia Adelaïde Needham née Montgomery (1863–1945) was a composer and music teacher. Needham studied at Cambridge University, received his bachelor's degree in 1921, master's degree in January 1925 and doctorate in October 1925. After graduation, he worked in F.G. Hopkins's laboratory at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, specialising in embryology and morphogenesis.

Life in China

Three Chinese scientists came to work with Needham in 1936: Lu Gwei-djen, Wang Yinglai (王應睐), and Shen Shizhang (沈詩章). Lu (1904–91), daughter of a Nanjingese pharmacist, taught Needham Classical Chinese. This ignited Needham's interest in China's technological and scientific past.

Under the Royal Society's direction, Needham was the director of the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office in Chongqing from 1942 to 1946, collaborating with the historian Wang Ling (王玲), Needham's collaborator, whom solidifying his passion for Chinese scientific history. He wrote his first book on the history of Chinese technology in 1945, Chinese Science. He also met numerous Chinese scholars including painter Wu Zuoren (吴作人), and travelled to sites in western China including Dunhuang and Yunnan. He also visited educational institutions, from which large amounts of references and materials were collected, which would aid his editing of the Science and Civilisation in China Series.

After two years' tenure as the first head of the Natural Science division at UNESCO in Paris, France – indeed, it was Needham who insisted that Science should be included in the organisation's mandate – he returned to Gonville and Caius College in 1948 when Cambridge University Press partially funded his Science and Civilisation in China series. He devoted much energy to the history of Chinese science until his retirement in 1990, even though he continued to teach biochemistry until 1966. He also supported the controversial Chinese communist claims of American biological warfare as an inspector from 1952 to 1953 in North Korea during the Korean War.

In 1961 Needham was awarded the 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, Needham was awarded the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize by Fukuoka City.

With Derek Bryan, a retired diplomat, he established the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding, which for some years provided the only way for the British to visit the People's Republic.

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

Needham was first married to Dorothy Moyle (née Moyle, 1896–1987). Two years after Dorothy's death (1989), Needham was re-married to Lu Gwei-djen. He suffered from Parkinson's disease from 1982, and died at the age of 94 at his Cambridge home.

Needham's Grand Question

"Needham's Grand Question" is why China had been overshot 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.

See also

  • Sir Christopher Hum, a successor as Master of Caius College.
  • Anglo-Chinese relations
  • List of Sinologists
  • List of historians
  • G.E.R. Lloyd
  • Nathan Sivin
  • Four Great Inventions of ancient China


  • Xinhua:Today's NRI
  • Papers in the last ten years on Needham and his Grand Question
  • Needham and his early knowledge on Chinese culture
  • Brief introduction of the exhibition in Taipei on "Needham and Chinese science during the Second Sino-Japanese War"
  • Brief biography
  • Tidbits on Needham's daily activities
Preceded by:
Sir Nevill Mott
Master of Gonville and Caius College
Succeeded by:
Sir William Wade
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Joseph_Needham". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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