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Dr. Joseph Needham

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A Young Scientist in early 1920s

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A creative biochemist by late 1920s

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Noted as Father of the 3 vol "Chemical Embryology" by late 1930s

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The Needhams in the early 1940s

Joseph Needham was born in London on December 9th 1900, the only child of a highly disciplined family. His father was a successful Harley Street medical specialist in anaesthesia, and his mother was an accomplished musician. He was destined for medicine when he entered Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge University in 1918. However, he was soon attracted to the evolving modern science of biochemistry, and received a Ph.D. in Chemical Embryology in 1924. His research in the subject was so widely acclaimed that it earned him recognition as the 
“father of chemical embryology”. In the same year, he married his fellow Laboratory researcher, Dorothy Moyle, herself an authority in muscle chemistry.  They were elected Fellows of the Royal Society in 1941 and 1948, respectively; the first couple ever to receive such a coveted honour.

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Election to the FRS in 1941

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Fellow of the Royal Society

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Taken in Wartime China during 1942 - 46

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Dr. Joseph Needham with Chinese Scholars in Chongqing

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The Needhams with the HK, UK, and US directors / Trustees at the NRI, Aug 1990

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Dr. Needham welcomed HRH the Duke of Edinburgh at NRI on 12 June 1987

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Dr. Needham was honored by HM The Queen with the Order of the Companions of Honour on 22 October 1992

After completing his doctoral work, he continued his research while serving as a Demonstrator in Biochemistry. In 1933, he was appointed the Sir William Dunn Reader in Biochemistry, a post he held until 1966 when he was elected Master of Gonville and Caius College, where he retired in 1976.

Joseph Needham’s association with the study of ancient Chinese science and technology was truly unique. In 1937, he met three young graduate students from China doing doctoral research in biochemistry at Cambridge. Their arrival at the Laboratory completely changed his life. Of the three, Lu Gwei-Djen had the most profound influence on him. She challenged him to explore the tremendous advances and contributions of ancient Chinese medicine, science and technology to the rise of modern science, and encouraged him to study Chinese, which he subsequently mastered so well that he could easily read classical Chinese texts without assistance.

With his strong scientific knowledge and language ability, in late 1942 he was dispatched to Chongqing, the wartime capital of China, as Scientific Counsellor, British Embassy and Director, Sino-British Science Cooperation Office. In this dual position, he provided scientific advice to the then Kuomintang government and rendered a wide range of assistance to scientists and scholars.

At the end of World War II, from 1946-48, he briefly served as the first Director of the Department of Natural Science at the newly formed UNESCO in Paris, adding an “S” to the then cultural and educational agency.  Thereafter, he returned to Cambridge, where he continued as the Sir William Dunn Reader in Biochemistry until 1966; he was Master of Caius College for ten years until his retirement in 1976. 
Armed with self-taught linguistic skill in classical Chinese, he was the first Western scholar to conduct a comprehensive and comparative study of the history of Chinese science and technology relative to the rise of modern science. By citing many modern scientific and technological advances that originated in ancient China, he authoritatively dispelled a long-held view in the West that China neither had no science nor made any contribution to modern science. He, together with his many distinguished collaborators, demonstrated that China and the Near East had made many outstanding contributions in the transformation of ancient to modern science. His monumental work “Science and Civilisation in China” has been characterized as “perhaps the greatest single act of historical synthesis and inter-cultural communication ever attempted…”

The biography of Joseph Needham would be incomplete without also mentioning the late Dr. Lu Gwei-Djen, the daughter of a traditional herbalist in Nanjing, China. After earning her doctorate in nutritional biochemistry at Cambridge, she went on to further academic research in the United States during the Second World War, and later worked at UNESCO in Paris. She was equally influenced by Joseph Needham’s new field of interest and eventually returned to Cambridge in 1957 to become his closest assistant and collaborator in the SCC series, and moreover, married him in 1989 after the death in 1987 of Dorothy Moyle Needham. This happy marriage, unfortunately, did not last long, as Dr. Lu-Needham herself passed away in 1991, leaving Joseph emotionally drained until his own death in March 1995.

He was highly respected by both Beijing and Taipei; the first foreign member and Honorary Professor of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, respectively; he also received the Order of the Brilliant Star from Taiwan.

Apart from being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1941, he was also elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1971; he received the UNESCO Einstein Gold Medal in 1988. And in 1992, he was awarded a Companion of Honour by Her Majesty the Queen. 

When Joseph Needham died on March 24th, 1995, at the age of 94, the world lost one of its greatest scholars of the 20th century, a man of remarkable energy with an insatiable drive for learning; he could communicate readily in eight languages. As a deeply religious Anglican and 
lay preacher, he will always be remembered as a 
bridge-builder between the East and the West.

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By Prof. Mansel Davies

The Independent

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By Sarah Lyall

The New York Times