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Dr. Gwei-Djen Lu-Needham


Principal Driving Force and Principal Collaborator of the “Science & Civilization in China” series with Joseph Needham


“Distinguished Cambridge scientist, a pioneer in the isolation of Vitamin B1, and principal collaborator with Dr. Joseph Needham in the writing of many volumes of Science and Civilization in China. In 1989, she became Dr. Needham’s wife.”

wedding at Caius_small.tif

Dr. Joseph Needham and Dr. Gwei Djen Lu's wedding

The two walking past the Caius College entrance

The entire life of Dr. Lu-Needham, from her birth into a well-educated and outward looking family in Nanjing in the early 1900s, her training as a nutritional biochemist in China and progress to become an authority in vitamins in her own right, her Ph.D. work in Cambridge with Dr. Dorothy Needham, her eventual collaboration with Dr. Joseph Needham on his SCC project, and marriage to him following the death of Dorothy Needham, seems, in retrospect, like heaven-sent destiny.  Upon her death, her remarkable life was eloquently eulogized by Joseph Needham, condensed here.

Lu Gwei-Djen was born in Nanjing on 1 September 1904, the only daughter of Lu Mouting, a traditional Chinese pharmacist also well-versed in the pharmacopoeia of modern Western medicine. She studied at Jinling College in Nanjing, receiving her BA in 1926. She began her research career at the Peking Union Medical College where she was trained as a chemical pathologist. In 1928 she moved to Shanghai, holding teaching posts in biochemisty at the Woman’s Christian College and then St. John's University. Then, in 1933, she took up a research post at the Henry Lester Institute in Shanghai, where she collaborated on vitamin research and particularly the isolation of vitamin B with the well-known authority on vitamins, Professor Benjamin Platt.


Despite contracting typhoid fever, in 1937 she made a perilous departure during the Japanese bombing of Shanghai to Cambridge, England, where she studied for a Ph.D in biochemistry with Dr. Dorothy Needham (1896-1987) at the Sir William Dunn Institute as a research student at Newnham College. It was here that she met Dr. Joseph Needham (1900-1994), beginning a relationship with him that was to last the rest of her life, inspiring him to learn Chinese and to begin his research on the history of science, technology and medicine in China.


Having received her Phd in 1939 on vitamin B1 deficiency, she spent the years of WWII in the US, she continued her research on vitamin deficiencies (B and E) as Research Fellow at the Institute of Experimental Biochemistry, University of California, Berkeley and at the Harriman Research Lab, San Francisco, from 1939-41. She was forced to move away from there by the allergy which she developed to the flowering acacia trees, moving first to the Nutrition Clinic, Hillman Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama from 1941-42, and then to the Philadelphia International Cancer Research Foundation, based in New York in the Biochemistry Department, College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University from 1942-45, where she became a great friend of Wu Chien-Shiung吳健雄 (1912-1997), the famous physicist.

In 1945 she joined the Needham’s at the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office in Chongqing, the wartime capital of China, which set up by Joseph Needham supported by the British Council at the British Embassy there in 1943. She moved with the Office to Nanjing in 1946, where in 1947 she was elected Professor of Nutritional Science at the University of Nanjing. This situation did not last very long, however, and she was soon called to Paris to join the Department of Natural Sciences at the newly established UNESCO. There she stayed as Assistant Chief of the Department for nine years, in charge of the field science co-operation offices which had been set up on the model of the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office in Chongqing.


Eventually, in 1957, she moved to Cambridge which was to be her home for the rest of her life. Here, funded largely by the Wellcome Trust, she collaborated with Joseph Needham on many subjects, mostly, medical, such as the history of forensic medicine, variolation and vaccination in China, among others. In particular she assisted Dr. Needham with research for seven volumes of the Science and Civilisation in China series, publishing with him several articles and the monograph Celestial Lancets: A History and Rationale of Acupuncture (CUP, 1980). She also accompanied him on several extensive research and fund-raising visits to East Asia between 1964 and 1984, and made many important contributions to Dr. Needham’s collection of books and other research materials - the East Asian History of Science Library – now housed at the Needham Research Institute in Cambridge.

Following Dorothy Needham’s passing in 1987, Dr. Lu and Joseph Needham got married in 1989. Sadly, they were granted barely two years of married life and she died on 28 November 1991 of broncho-pneumonia. Though she habitually kept out of Joseph Needham’s limelight, her support for and contributions to his sinological endeavours over half a century were vital, and as Professor Ho Peng Yoke何丙郁once remarked “假如没有鲁桂珍,就不会有李约瑟,只在生物化学的领域有一个 Joseph Needham”(Suppose there had been no Lu Gwei-Djen, there would be no Li Yuese (Joseph’s Chinese name), just the biochemist Joseph Needham).

More on Dr. Gwei-Djen Lu-Needham can be found in: 《Lu Gwei-Djen: A Commemoration

by The Pentland Press Ltd. | Edinburgh · Cambridge · Durham

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