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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
Spouse(s) Dorothy Moyle Needham (m. 1924–1987) «start: (1924)–end+1: (1988)»"Marriage: Dorothy Moyle Needham to Joseph Needham" Location:United Kingdom (linkback:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Needham)
Lu Gwei-Djen (m. 1989–1991) «start: (1989)–end+1: (1992)»"Marriage: Lu Gwei-Djen to Joseph Needham" Location:United Kingdom (linkback:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Needham)

Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham, CH, FRS, FBA (9 December 1900 – 24 March 1995), also known as Li Yuese (traditional Chinese: 李約瑟; simplified Chinese: 李约瑟; pinyin: Lǐ Yuēsè: Wade-Giles: Li Yüeh-Sê), was a British academic and sinologist known for his research and writing on the history of Chinese science. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1941;[1] and he was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1971.[2] 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.[3]



Early years

Needham was the only child of a London family: his father was a Scottish doctor and his mother, Alicia Adelaïde Montgomery (1863–1945) was a French-Irish composer and music teacher. Needham received bachelor's degree in 1921 from Cambridge University, 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. 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 1936: Lu Gwei-djen (Lu Gui-zhen 鲁桂珍), Wang Ying-lai (王應睞), and Chen Shi-zhang (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. Needham collaborated with the historian Wang Ling (王玲), who solidified Needham's passion for Chinese scientific history.

Needham wrote his first book on the history of Chinese technology in 1945, titled Chinese Science. He also met numerous Chinese scholars, including the painter Wu Zuo ren (吳作人), 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 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.

In 1965, with Derek Bryan, a retired diplomat, 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.

Science and Civilisation in China

In 1954, Needham with an international team of collaborators, started a project to study the science and civilisation of ancient China. This project produced a series of volumes titled Science and Civilisation in China (SCC) published by the Cambridge University Press. The project is now proceeding under the guidance of the Publications Board of the Needham Research Institute, chaired by Christopher Cullen.[4]

The massive project produced a series of volumes under Needham's direct supervision; and the regular production of further volumes continued after his death in 1995. 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—see Needham's SCC organizating scheme:

Evaluations and critiques

"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's work has been criticized by some scholars for its strong inclination to exaggerate Chinese technological achievements and its propensity to prove a Chinese origin for the wide range of objects his work covered.[5] 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 susceptible of 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." [6]

Needham's political views were unorthodox and his lifestyle controversial. His work in science was based in an idiosyncratic form of Christian socialism and after 1949 his sympathy with Chinese culture was extended to the new government. Needham agreed to be an inspector in North Korea (1952-53) during the Korean War and in his report he supported the controversial Chinese communist claims that the Americans had used biological warfare there. 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".[7] Winchester also notes that because of his assertions Needham was blacklisted by the U.S. government until well into the 1970s.

Personal life

Needham was first married to Dorothy Moyle (1896–1987). Simon Winchester notes that, in his younger days, Needham was an avid gymnosophist.[8] In 1989, two years after Dorothy's death, Needham married Lu Gwei-djen (1904-1991). 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 was endowed in honour of Joseph Needham as the Joseph Needham Professorship of Chinese History, Science, and Civilization.[9]

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.

  • Order of the Companions of Honour, 1992.[3]
  • British Academy, 1971.[2]
  • Royal Society, 1941.[1]


  • Science, Religion and Reality (1925)
  • Chemical Embryology (1931)
  • The Great Amphibium: Four Lectures on the Position of Religion in a World Dominated by Science (1931)
  • Perspectives in Biochemistry: Thirty-One Essays Presented to Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins by Past and Present Members of His Laboratory (1937)
  • Time: The Refreshing River (Essays and Addresses, 1932-1942) (1943)
  • Chinese Science (1945)
  • 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)
  • Science and Civilisation in China (1954, etc) - 25 volumes to date
  • Science and Civilization in China, by Joseph Needham, with the research assistance [and collaboration] of Wang Ling (1954-59) (2 volumes)
  • A History of Embryology (1959)
  • The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West (1969)
  • 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)
  • Chinese Science: Explorations of an Ancient Tradition (1973)
  • Moulds of Understanding: A Pattern of Natural Philosophy (1976)
  • The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China (3 volumes) (1978) - an abridgement of the 1954- version.
  • Science in Traditional China : A Comparative Perspective (1982)
  • The Genius of China (1986)
  • Heavenly Clockwork : The Great Astronomical Clocks of Medieval China (1986)
  • The Hall of Heavenly Records : Korean Astronomical Instruments and Clocks, 1380-1780 (1986)

Science and Civilisation in China volumes

Date Title Vol./
1954 Introductory Orientations 1 Joseph Needham,
Wang Ling (research assistant)
1956 History of Scientific Thought 2 Joseph Needham,
Wang Ling (research assistant)
1959 Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and Earth 3 Joseph Needham,
Wang Ling (research assistant)
1962 Physics 4/01 Joseph Needham,
Wang Ling (research assistant),
Kenneth Robinson
1965 Mechanical Engineering 4/02 Joseph Needham,
Wang Ling
1971 Civil Engineering and Nautics 4/03 Joseph Needham,
Wang Ling,
Lu Gwei-djen
1974 Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Magisteries of Gold and Immortality 5/02 Joseph Needham,
Lu Gwei-djen
1976 Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Historical Survey, from Cinnabar Elixirs to Synthetic Insulin 5/03 Joseph Needham,
Ho Ping-Yu [Ho Peng-Yoke],
Lu Gwei-djen
1980 Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Apparatus and Theory 5/04 Joseph Needham,
Lu Gwei-djen,
Nathan Sivin
1983 Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Physiological Alchemy 5/05 Joseph Needham,
Lu Gwei-djen
1984 Agriculture 6/02 Francesca Bray >
1985 Paper and Printing 5/01 Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin >
1986 Textile Technology: Spinning and Reeling 5/09 Dieter Kuhn >
1986 Botany 6/01 Joseph Needham,
Lu Gwei-djen,
Huang Hsing-Tsung
1987 Military Technology: The Gunpowder Epic 5/07 Joseph Needham,
Ho Ping-Yu [Ho Peng-Yoke],
Lu Gwei-djen,
Wang Ling
1994 Military Technology: Missiles and Sieges 5/06 Joseph Needham,
Robin D.S. Yates,
Krzysztof Gawlikowski,
Edward McEwen,
Wang Ling
1996 Agroindustries and Forestry 6/03 Christian A. Daniels,
Nicholas K. Menzies
1998 Language and Logic 7/01 Christoph Harbsmeier >
1999 Mining 5/13 Peter Golas >
2000 Fermentations and Food Science 6/05 Huang Hsing-Tsung >
2000 Medicine 6/06 Joseph Needham,
Lu Gwei-djen,
(edited by Nathan Sivin)
2004 Ceramic Technology 5/12 Rose Kerr,
Nigel Wood,
Ts'ai Mei-fen,
Zhang Fukang
2004 General Conclusions and Reflections 7/02 Joseph Needham,
(edited by Kenneth Girdwood Robinson),
contributions by Ray Huang,
introduction by Mark Elvin
2008 Ferrous Metallurgy 5/11 Donald B. Wagner >
2__? Work in progress 5/08 Volume editor/contributors unknown >
2__? Work in progress 5/10 Volume editor/contributors unknown >
2__? Work in progress 6/04 Volume editor/contributors unknown >

See also

  • List of Sinologists
  • List of historians
  • Rise of the West
  • G.E.R. Lloyd
  • Four Great Inventions of ancient China



  • 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. 13-ISBN 978-0-06-088459-8
  • 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).

External links