Skip to main content

Needham, Joseph


(b. London, England, 9 December 1900; d. Cambridge, England, 24 March 1995)

scientist, international activist, historian of science.

Needham was a visionary and an innovative scientist, social activist, and historian, whose seven decades of scholarship shaped many fields of knowledge. Needham’s scientific research pioneered the recasting of the traditional relationships between physicochemical sciences and biology that revolutionized the life sciences in the second half of the twentieth century, while focusing in particular on the interdisciplinary field of biochemical embryology. He was also a prolific author, having published about one hundred scientific papers and more than two dozen books on science; the relationship of science with philosophy, religion, ideology, and politics; and the history of Chinese and Western science. Needham was an intellectual leader of progressive causes, most notably the anti-Fascist cause during the 1930s, and the cause of international cooperation in science, especially in the framework of UNESCO, during the 1940s. The second half of Needham’s life, 1950–1995, was devoted to a pioneering study of the history of Chinese science that fostered a crucial sense of intellectual parity between East and West while inspiring numerous international scholars. Needham inspired and encouraged collaborating scientists from many countries who flocked to Cambridge to work with him during his bench heydays, as well as generations of scholars in the history of life sciences, the history of Chinese science, or the history of international scientific exchanges, who sought him out since the 1970s.

Needham was born in London, England, where his father, also called Joseph Needham, practiced medicine on Harley Street. His mother, Alicia Adelaide Montgomery, was a composer of songs. He was an only child who was much influenced by the incompatible temperaments of his parents, and by his education at Oundle School, a progressive school in Northamptonshire, which he did not particularly enjoy but which gave him a lasting legacy in the form of inspiring history lessons, a visionary outlook, and technical skills.

Visionary and Innovative Scientist Needham intended to follow in his father’s footsteps and train in medicine. However, he gravitated toward biochemistry in graduate school (1921–1924) under the influence of his college tutor at Cambridge University, the notable chemist William H. Hardy. Needham trained under Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, the founder of this discipline, who became a much-loved father figure (Needham’s father died in 1920). Needham embarked upon an academic career, becoming reader, or “second in command,” in the Department of Biochemistry at Cambridge University. The decision to trade medicine for biochemistry was facilitated by his election to fellowship in his college, Gonville and Caius, which meant a sinecure for life with both job security and intellectual independence as a scholar.

Needham’s broad, polymathic interests (philosophical, historical, political, religious, literary) and his responsiveness to rising issues of social justice led him to gradually gravitate away from mainstream biochemistry and focus instead on radical, interdisciplinary, and collaborative ventures designed to replace the prevailing scientific hierarchies with a new, egalitarian order based on parity between biology and the physical sciences, as well as greater equality among classes, races, and genders. Needham credited his broad vision and his courage to pursue utopian projects and entertain nonconformist social views to the influence of his high school headmaster, the visionary educator Frederick W. Sanderson, and the latter’s friend and frequent visitor at the school, the utopian writer Herbert G. Wells, as well as the satirical playwright George Bernard Shaw (Needham, 1973).

Needham’s formerly mild interest in social reform was reinforced in the mid-1920s by his colleague and friend, the French biochemist Louis Rapkine, who introduced him to Marxism, though this interest was to take an activist form only after 1931. Until then, in addition to his professor, Hopkins, the main influence upon Needham was his encounter with the zoologist turned philosopher of biology Joseph Henri Woodger of the University of London, following his review of Woodger’s book Biological Principles (1929). Woodger introduced Needham to the philosophy of biology, which Woodger understood as a system of empirically valid and conceptually clear logical propositions, along logical empiricist lines. Needham’s intense correspondence with Woodger and other philosophers of biology, most notably Ludwig von Bertalanffy, led him to elaborate on the major debate at the heart of biology, the so-called mechanist-vitalist debate that polarized scientists between those who asserted the sufficiency of physicochemical methods in biology and those who asserted the irreducibility of biology to physics and chemistry. Needham updated this centuries-long debate in view of the scientific findings of the late 1920s (mainly the quantum revolution in physics and its holistic view of the atom as a system) and the new tools of the philosophy of science, such as the distinction between methodology and metaphysics.

As already evident in his first paper (“The Philosophical Basis of Biochemistry,” 1925), Needham, much as his mentor Hopkins, was preoccupied with bridging the contradictory doctrines of mechanism and vitalism for relevance to the foundations of biology in general and biochemistry in particular, and he seized upon the potential of the philosophy of science in providing a solution to this problem. Needham’s solution was to develop an intermediary position, while aiming to retain the best features of mechanism and vitalism, by restricting the former to the lower status of a heuristic methodology, while conferring upon the latter the higher status of a metaphysics, yet one which does not intervene in scientific practice.

However, Needham’s obsessive quest to reconcile opposites—a quest attributed to his childhood desire to reconcile his incompatible parents, or an analytically minded social conservative father and an artistically minded bohemian mother (Needham, 1973)—and hence his unique ability to tolerate and compartmentalize contradictions exposed Needham to Woodger’s constant criticism. These philosophical concerns were soon to be superseded by Needham’s discovery of a new vocation, that of exhaustive scholarship in combining historical and contemporary detail in science. In order to demonstrate the compatibility of mechanism and organicism for defining the philosophical status of biochemistry, and especially for his own research in biochemical embryology, Needham plunged into a massive exploration of the mutual relevance of biochemistry and embryology since antiquity and until his own time.

The resulting three-volume book, Chemical Embryology (1931), not only displayed Needham’s remarkable ability to cope with a vast number of sources, both recent and ancient (the first volume was soon reprinted as A History of Embryology, 1934) but also revealed his naïveté regarding the prospects of interdisciplinary research at the time. Needham’s 1931 book was praised for its erudition but criticized for being an unsatisfactory hybrid, neither biochemical enough nor embryological enough. An update published a decade later, Biochemistry and Morpho-genesis (1942), better avoided an earlier perception that he was aiming at reducing morphology, the “most biological” discipline, to its chemical aspects, a perception responsible for antagonism among classical biologists.

Like many others, Needham experienced 1931 as a turning point. On the scientific side, he embarked upon the biochemical chase for the “organizer” or inducer of embryonic organs, while following up with several collaborators the molecular prospects of a key discovery at the heart of embryology. This was one of the most ambitious research programs at the time, extending beyond disciplinary boundaries, while anticipating the line of revolutionary research associated with mRNA in the 1950s. On the sociopolitical side, Needham’s exposure to two international congresses held in London at a time of great upheaval greatly influenced him toward adopting a dialectical materialist orientation and to become active in socialist causes.

The first such meeting, held at the Science Museum in London in July 1931, was the Second International Congress for the History of Science (ICHS). Needham was one of eight speakers at the session on “The Recasting of the Relationships between Physics and Biology,” which included the biologists Joseph H. Woodger, John S. Hal-dane, Edward S. Russell, and Lancelot Hogben; the physicists Lancelot L. Whyte and John D. Bernal, both of Cambridge University; and a Soviet delegate, Boris Zavadovsky, who argued in favor of new, egalitarian, relationship between physics and biology from dialectical materialist premises. Needham was impressed by the latter’s arguments and soon seized upon dialectical materialism as a philosophical system that was able not only to bridge opposites in science but also to introduce an ethics of justice in social affairs. Of similar influence were the speeches of other members of the Soviet delegation, most notably its head, Nikolai Bukharin, the chief Soviet ideologue, and Boris Hessen, whose paper “The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia” introduced what became known as the externalist approach to the history of science. The Second ICHS thus stimulated Needham, among others, to adopt a socialist viewpoint in both science and society.

The Centennial of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), the most well-attended BAAS meeting ever, with delegations flowing from all corners of the British Empire, held in September 1931 at the Royal Institution in London, among other venues, was another Congress that lent its weight to influencing public opinion in science and its foundations. Needham’s much-admired mentor, Hopkins, delivered a keynote address to the Physiological Section of BAAS, in which he labeled biology in general and biochemistry in particular as the “science of life,” and hence the science of the future, as opposed to physics, which he portrayed as a “science of death” due to its war involvements. The BAAS president, General Jan Smuts, himself a philosopher, also argued in favor of parity between biology and physics, in the name of popular philosophies of emergent evolution, with which Needham too had sympathized and was to further develop in his prestigious Spencerian Lecture at Oxford University in 1937 (reprinted in Needham, 1946).

The influence of these congresses stemmed not only from their international standing and size but also from their timing. Held amidst the shocking collapse of the gold standard, hunger marches of unemployed miners, the fall of the second Labour government, and the king’s appeal for a national unity coalition, these international science meetings embodied all the contradictions that a sensitive young scientist-philosopher-historian such as Needham could perceive. He was not alone in thinking that major social, political, and scientific change was just around the corner.

The convergence of such historical factors led Needham to engage in “collective action” by participating in an informal group, the “Biotheoretical Gathering,” a group of philosophically minded scientists intent on exploring the prospects of interdisciplinary research, once the epistemological parity of biology and the physical sciences had been acknowledged in such major international venues. The group included scientists from Cambridge, Oxford, and London universities who met twice per year; they maintained rapport by correspondence, until the outbreak of World War II, which dispersed its members worldwide. Their collective research projects envisioned a new, innovative, and interdisciplinary, conceptual and social space that can be seen as the first systematic discourse in molecular biology.

Though all of Needham’s partners in this informal group contributed theoretical and empirical ideas—most notably the biocrystallographer Bernal, the biomathematician Dorothy M. Wrinch, the physicochemical morphologist and epigeneticist Conrad H. Waddington, among others—researchers owe their knowledge of this group to Needham’s role as a devoted coordinator and “scribe” who wrote and kept the minutes of this group’s fascinating meetings. After World War II, Needham’s and Bernal’s preoccupations turned to science policy in the late 1940s and to the history of science in the 1950s and beyond. Wrinch and Waddington continued to work in different forms of theoretical biology, while Woodger became a full-time philosopher of biology. Though their collective forum was not reconvened after World War II in its prewar form, some of their ideas regarding the problem of protein structure and function were pursued by a new generation of scientists, for example, Max Perutz, John Kendrew, Francis Crick, John Randall, and Rosalind Franklin, who became instrumental in launching molecular biology in the post–World War II era. Needham took part in a critical phase in the history of the molecular revolution in biology, both as a visionary scientist-actor and as the metascientist creator of archival records from the 1930s.

Author Between 1925 and 1946, Needham authored not only scientific papers and large-scale synthetic books on the relationship between biochemistry and embryology, most notably the above mentioned Chemical Embryology (1931), Order and Life (1936), and Biochemistry and Morphogenesis (1942), but also a variety of essays, often assembled into edited collections on science’s relationship to philosophy, history, religion, and politics. For example, Needham’s Time, the Refreshing River (1943) and History Is on Our Side (1946) include essays and addresses from the 1930s that engage the burning issues of the day, most notably the fight against Fascism, the role of Marxism in social evolution, the place of religious experience, the philosophy of emergent evolution, and the importance of science in war and peace. He was unusual among other

politically active scientists, especially on the Left, in insisting on the compatibility of Marxism with religion, and in writing extensively on science and religion.

Needham was so prolific an author in part because he learned at the young age of eight to write directly on the typewriter; because he found in writing a medium of expression best suited to someone of shy and bookish dispositions; and because he understood the importance of his proximity to Cambridge University Library and lived all his life next door to it. His ability to maximize his use of time was further reflected in his habit to invite his visitors to meals, whether breakfast or dinner, so as not to waste his precious scholarly time. By the time his seventieth anniversary Festschrift was published in 1973 (Teich and Young, eds.), Needham had published almost thirty books, including several edited collections of essays by others. The eightieth Festschrift, published in 1982 (Hu, ed.) required significant additions to his bibliography. It is plausible to assume that Needham’s influence was exercised primarily via his prolific writings.

Of special importance are the two volumes Needham coedited in honor of Hopkins in 1938 and 1949. These volumes capture the history of biochemistry from the perspective of the collective memory of those who worked with Hopkins until his death in 1947 and are a unique resource for historians wishing to understand the rise of the first British school of biochemistry, the contributions of women, minority, and overseas scientists, the reasons for its decline in the post–World War II era, or the rise of an internationally famous Laboratory of Molecular Biology outside the Cambridge University structure. Need-ham’s initiatives as prolific editor thus complement his authorial ones in establishing the presence of a unique voice concerned with social conscience, a sense of intellectual equality across race, gender, and class, and a quest for justice, tolerance, and open-mindedness to other cultures.

Social Activist During the 1930s, Needham was active in several progressive causes, ranging from serving on the Cambridge Trade Council, together with his wife, Dorothy Moyle Needham, as delegates of the Association of Scientific Workers, to being chairman of the Socialist League, a Labour Party group, and serving as treasurer of the Cornford-McLaurin Fund (which assisted relatives of the fallen in the Spanish civil war). Though Needham lacked the oratorical powers of John B. S. Haldane or Bernal, unlike them and many other scientists on the Left who followed the erratic agendas of the Communist Party of Great Britain or the Comintern, Needham was able to prioritize the activity of help to victims of Fascism and to limit his infatuation with Marxism to philosophical rhetoric. Needham was considered to be one of top five Leftist public intellectuals in the 1930s (Werskey, 1978); he delivered his message via extensive writings, which provided a moderate form of intellectual leadership in a historical time of great need.

Science Statesman in the International Arena During the 1940s, Needham served as scientific director of the Chinese-British mission in unoccupied China and as a liaison with European organizations of international science cooperation that planned the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at the end of World War II. From 1942 to 1946 he oversaw a British effort to help unoccupied China maintain its scientific activity despite the hardship of the Japanese occupation of parts of China. Needham’s mission employed ten British and sixteen Chinese, who distributed scientific books and equipment, “imported” from India by Royal Air Force planes “commuting” over the Himalayas, to remote sites all over vast China. He thus came to be perceived as a friend of Chinese scientists in their greatest hour of need and was recognized with widespread gratitude and various honors, including membership in the Academia Sinica. Needham used his diplomatic mission in China during World War II to become acquainted with people, books, manuscripts, and technical devices that he would later integrate in his multivolume study of science in China. Needham’s wartime experience in China served as a blueprint for his later role in the period of 1946–1948 as director of UNESCO’s Natural Science Division. He was also responsible for adding scientific concerns (the “S”) to UNESCO’s initial cultural and educational mandates.

Scholar of the History of Chinese Science The second half of Needham’s life was devoted to a pioneering study of the history of Chinese science and its comparative relationship to Western science. His monumental, multivolume studies, Science and Civilization in China (1954), fostered a crucial sense of intellectual parity between East and West. This work is of a unique magnitude, with twenty volumes in print, while covering a wide variety of subjects including astronomy, alchemy, and chemistry, botany, agriculture, metallurgy, and numerous other subjects.

It is tempting to accept Lu Gwei-Djen’s somewhat teleological account (1982) of Needham’s biography, namely that all the versatile experiences accumulated by Needham until he turned to his monumental and comparative study of Chinese science had an eventual purpose—to serve as building blocks in this unprecedented and most amazing undertaking of seeking to cover a vast civilization while doing so from a comparative perspective and from an outlook of intellectual parity. Despite methodological and historiographical debates surrounding Needham’s undertaking (Habib & Raina, 1999), the work continues to serve as a reference point to all scholars of Chinese or any other non-Western science.

However, Needham’s vision of East-West parity, and his persistence in implementing it over half a century, will continue to inspire future scholars. Safely enshrined at the Needham Research Institute in Cambridge, U.K. ( with an endowment contributed by both governmental and private donors, Needham’s life work has gone a long way since his initial impulse to escape the absolutism of Western religion led him to pursue the greener pastures of Taoist moderation and relativism. He was fortunate to live long enough to see his one-time dream of East-West cultural parity materialize and contribute to world harmony.

Mentor of International Scholars Needham understood the importance of mentoring younger scholars and was invariably helpful with valuable tips needed for coping with the complexities of academic life at Cambridge University, a life he knew only too well for seven decades. Among the international scholars Needham cultivated were Mikulas Teich, a historian of biochemistry who arrived in the United Kingdom as a refugee from the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968, and who shaped, together with leading British historians of science such as Robert Young and Roy Porter, many historiographic fronts, as well as Gary Werskey, Donna Haraway, and Pnina Abir-Am, whose PhD theses included chapters on Needham’s work in the interwar period. Other scholars, too many to enumerate, benefited from Needham’s mentorship, while contributing to his multivolume enterprise, Science and Civilization in China.

Yet another key aspect of Needham’s unique persona that must be mentioned, and indeed better researched, is his productive collaboration with his two wives, Dorothy Mary Moyle Needham, whom he married in 1924, and Lu Gwei-Djen, whom he married in 1990, following Dorothy’s death in 1987. Both women took their PhD in biochemistry at Cambridge University, with Lu arriving there in 1937 to work in Dorothy Moyle Needham’s laboratory. Though both women maintained independent careers, they also collaborated significantly with Joseph Needham, while making indispensable contributions to his two major projects in science and in history of science, respectively.

For example, Joseph Needham’s ability in the 1930s to conduct a demanding research project in physico-chemical morphology at a time he was also engaged in teaching, writing large books, lecturing, and leading social activism depended on Dorothy Moyle Needham’s experimental skills, her constant presence in the laboratory, and her willingness to put her work aside during the collaboration on the “organizer.” Moyle Needham remained all her life in the Department of Biochemistry at Cambridge, where she focused on the biochemistry of muscle contraction; she was among the first women to be elected to the Royal Society, in 1948, and was a Fellow of New Hall, a women’s college established in Cambridge after World War II. Joseph Needham’s election to the Royal Society in 1941 was thus endebted to Dorothy Moyle Needham’s steady collaboration during the 1930s.

Similarly, Lu conducted research in the United States and Europe in the 1940s and 1950s, joining Needham as a long-term collaborator and project associate director for three decades in the 1960s. She became a foundation Fellow of Robinson College, the first coeducational college in Cambridge, which Needham was instrumental in establishing. At the same time, Needham’s vast undertaking in the history of Chinese science is inconceivable without the contributions of Lu Gwei-Djen, who not only stimulated his forays into the unknown territory of Chinese science and civilization, as early as 1937, but who also served as an ongoing resource of Chinese language, culture, and contacts, until she formally joined his project as a collaborator.

By the standards of postwar era, Needham appears to have been more egalitarian regarding class, race, and gender than most members of his generation. His collaborative authorship with each wife reflected the socialist ideals of intellectual and marital partnership, though it seems that he was the partner who most benefited from such cross-gender collaborative ventures, undertaken as they were, under conditions of patriarchy, in the absence of children-based families, as well as in the golden shadow of Cambridge University privileged lifestyle as a don, and later master, of an ancient and prestigious college.

Needham’s vast work and challenging personal life will no doubt continue to attract attention from historians of science. His meticulous habit of leaving clearly written traces will greatly help in discerning the origins of such unique visions and passions as bridging biochemistry and embryology, science and religion, science and ideology, Europe and China, or East and West.


Needham’s personal papers (and correspondence) are available for consultation at the Cambridge University Library, The Manuscripts Room, West Road, Cambridge, U.K. A paper catalog is available there; an online catalog is available at, as is the case with all cataloged collections of British scientists who are Fellows of the Royal Society. The most complete bibliography is the one included in Needham’s 80th anniversary volume, compiled by Lu Gwei-Djen in Explorations in the History of Science and Technology in China, Special Number in Honor of J. Needham’s eightieth birthday, edited by Tao-Ching [also spelled Daojing] Hu, pp. 703–720. Shanghai: Shanghai Chinese Classics Publishing House, 1982.


“The Philosophical Basis of Biochemistry.” Monist 35 (1925): 27–48.

Chemical Embryology. 3 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1931.

Order and Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1936;

Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968.

With David E. Green, eds. Perspectives in Biochemistry: 31 Essays Presented to Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins on the Occasion of His 75th Birthday. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1938.

Time, the Refreshing River. London: Allen & Unwin, 1943.

History Is on Our Side, a Contribution to Political Religion and Scientific Faith. London: Allen & Unwin, 1946.

With Ernest Baldwin, eds. Hopkins and Biochemistry. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1949.

Science and Civilization in China. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1954–present; early volumes authored alone; later volumes coauthored with collaborators; more than 20 volumes are now in print; titles can be viewed on the Web site on the Needham Research Institute, Cambridge, available from

“Preface” to Science at the Cross Roads, pp. vii–x, by Nikolai Bukharin et al. 2nd ed. London: Frank Cass, 1971. The first edition was published in 1931, in London, by Kniga, within 10 days of the 2nd Congress, and had no preface.

With Lu Gwei-Djen. Science in Traditional China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

“The Making of a Honorary Taoist” (under pseudonym of Henry Holorenshaw). In Changing Perspective in the History of Science, edited by Mikulas Teich and Robert Young, 1–20. London: Heinemann, 1973.


Abir-Am, Pnina G. “Recasting the Disciplinary Order in Science: A Deconstruction of Rhetoric on ‘Biology and Physics’ at Two International Congresses in 1931.” Humanity and Society 9 (November 1985): 388–427.

_____. “The Biotheoretical Gathering, Transdisciplinary Authority and the Incipient Legitimation of Molecular Biology in the 1930s: New Perspective on the Historical Sociology of Science.” History of Science 25 (March 1987): 1–70.

_____. “The Philosophical Background of Joseph Needham’s Work in Chemical Embryology, 1925–1942.” In Conceptual History of Modern Embryology, edited by S. Gilbert, 159–180. New York: Plenum Press, 1991.

Allen, Garland A. “Inducers and ‘Organizers’: Hans Spemann and Experimental Embryology.” History and Philosophy of Life Sciences 15 (1993): 229–236. Essay review of Hamburger, 1988.

Bayertz, Kurt, and Roy Porter, eds. From Physico-theology to Biotechnology: Essays in the Social and Cultural History of Biosciences, A Festschrift for Mikulas Teich’s 80th Birthday. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998.

Habib, S. Irfan, and Dhruv Raina, eds. Situating the History of Science: Dialogues with Joseph Needham. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Hamburger, Viktor. The Heritage of Experimental Embryology.

New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Haraway, Donna J. Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields, Metaphors of Organicism in 20th Century Development Biology. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976.

Hsu, Elisabeth, ed. Innovation in Chinese Medicine. Festschrift in Commemoration of Lu Gwei-djen. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Hu Tao-Ching [also spelled Daojing], ed. Explorations in the History of Science and Technology in China, Special Number in Honor of J. Needham’s eightieth birthday. Shanghai: Shanghai Chinese Classics Publishing House, 1982.

Kamminga, Harmke, and Mark W. Weatherall. “The Making of a Biochemist.” Medical History 40, nos. 1–2 (1996a, b): 269–292, 415–436.

Lu Gwei-Djen. “The First Half-Life of Joseph Needham.” In Explorations in the History of Science and Technology in China, edited by Tao-Ching [also spelled Daojing] Hu, 1–38. Shanghai: Shanghai Chinese Classics Publishing House, 1982. Volume in honor of J. Needham’s eightieth birthday.

Stephenson, Marjory. “Frederick Gowland Hopkins, 1861–1947.” Biochemical Journal 42 (1948): 161–170.

Teich, Mikulas. “From ‘Enchyme’ to ‘Cytoskeleton’: The Development of Ideas on the Chemical Organization of Living Matter.” In Changing Perspectives in the History of Science, edited by Mikulas Teich and Robert M. Young, 439–471. London: Heineman, 1973.

_____. “How It All Began? From the Enlightenment in National Context to Revolutions in History.” History of Science 51 (2003): 335–343.

Teich, Mikulas, and Robert M. Young, eds. Changing Perspectives in the History of Science. London: Heinemann, 1973. A Festschrift volume dedicated to Needham’s seventieth birthday.

Teich, Mikulas, and Roy Porter, eds. The National Question in Europe in Historical Context. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

_____. The Industrial Revolution in National Context. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Teich, Mikulas, Roy Porter, and Bengt Gustafsson, eds. Nature and Society in Historical Context. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Werskey, Gary. “Introduction” to Science at the Cross Roads, by Bukharin et al., pp. xi–xxix. 2nd ed. London: Frank Cass, 1971. The first edition was published in 1931 by Kniga in London.

_____. “Understanding Needham.” Introduction to Needham’s Moulds of Understanding, a Pattern of Natural Philosophy, edited by Gary Werskey, 13–28. London: Allen & Unwin, 1976.

_____. The Visible College: A Collective Biography of British Scientists and Socialists of the 1930s. London: Allen Lane, 1978.

Pnina G. Abir-Am

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Needham, Joseph." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . 23 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Needham, Joseph." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . (April 23, 2017).

"Needham, Joseph." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from

Needham, Joseph

Joseph Needham (nēd´əm), 1900–1995, British biochemist, historian of science, and sinologist, b. London. He had a lifelong association with Cambridge, where he was educated (Ph.D. 1924), taught biochemistry (1924–66), served as master of Gonville and Caius College (1966–76), and founded and directed the Needham Research Institute (1976–90). An embryologist, he wrote such books as Chemical Embryology (3 vol., 1931) and A History of Embryology (1934). Fascinated with all things Chinese, he learned Mandarin and headed (1942–46) the Sino-British Science Cooperation Office in Chongqing, China. After World War II he served (1946–48) as UNESCO's director of natural sciences. Needham wrote more than a dozen books, but by far his greatest achievement is the monumental Science and Civilization in China (7 vol., 1954–), a study of the history of Chinese science and technology and their relation to China's culture and society that was complete through its sixth volume at his death.

See M. Goldsmith, Joseph Needham: 20th-Century Renaissance Man (1995); S. K. Mukherjee and A. Ghosh, ed., The Life and Works of Joseph Needham (1997); P. Y. Ho, Reminiscence of a Roving Scholar: Science, Humanities, and Joseph Needham (2005); S. Winchester, The Man Who Loved China (2008).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Needham, Joseph." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 23 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Needham, Joseph." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (April 23, 2017).

"Needham, Joseph." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from