Needham, Dorothy Moyle

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(b.London, England, 22 September 1896; d. Cambridge, England, 22 December 1987)

biochemist, social activist, historian of science.

Needham was a pioneer of muscle biochemistry in the United Kingdom, who contributed to the big question of how chemical reactions produce heat and especially work that is characteristic of muscle. In 1921 she confirmed the intercoversion of glycogen and lactic acid, as postulated by Otto Meyerhoff, a foremost muscle physiologist and 1922 Nobel colaureate (Needham, 1950) while utilizing methods developed by her PhD advisor, Frederick G. Hopkins, the founder of British biochemistry (D. M. Needham & Foster, 1921). During the 1920s she published on the metabolism of several acids in muscle, thus contributing to an understanding of interlocking pathways of aerobic and anaerobic carbohydrate breakdown. She was also worked on cyclic phosphate transfer in muscle contraction, as well confirming, in 1939, with collaborators that myosin, the contractile protein of muscle, behaved as the anzyme ATPase (adenosine triphosphatase), a landmark finding that established for the first time a direct correlation of structure and function. Needham also published major books in the history of muscle biochemistry (1932, 1971). She also collaborated on a documentary history of biochemistry (D. M. Needham & Teich, 1992) that covered two centuries of original research.

Early Years Dorothy Moyle Needham was part of a generation of women who obtained formal scientific education at Cambridge University, while benefiting from new opportunities opened by World War I. Born in London as one of three children of John Thomas Moyle, a clerk in the Patents’ Office or a civil servant, and Ellen Daves Moyle, she began her studies at Girton College in 1915, as a student of the Natural Science Tripos. Her choice of Girton, the older and more militant of the two women’s colleges at the time at Cambridge, was influenced by her maternal aunt, Agnes Daves, headmistress of the high school Dorothy had attended, and a living example of the value of education and independence for women, at a time of ongoing suffrage struggle. That decision was further reinforced by the granting of the vote to women in 1918, as well as the perception of that generation of British women that marriage might not be an option, due to heavy male casualties in World War I.

Needham’s choice of chemistry was rare at the time for women, with relatively few students in the Women’s Colleges studying, let alone specializing, in science. Marie Curie’s solo Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911 (eight years after she shared the Nobel Prize for Physics with her husband Pierre and senior physicist Henri Becquerel), as well as Curie’s service in World War I as an operator of xray ambulance units, may have inspired Needham’s choices; she too would later collaborate with a husband in the same field and would contribute to the war effort during World War II. Of course, Girton had a tradition of excellence for women. In 1887 Agnata Ramsey had earned the highest marks in classics, prompting a congratulatory letter from Queen Victoria; Ramsey subsequently married the master of Trinity College, thus setting a model of combining scholarly excellence and marriage, which Needham, along with other educated women at Cambridge, would emulate and adapt to their own circumstances. Such role models, the teaching of chemistry at Girton by Miss M. B. Thomas (which Needham felt was superior to that offered by the Department of Chemistry at Cambridge University), and the growing acceptability of employment for women during and after World War I were key forces that shaped Dorothy Moyle Need-ham’s professional choices.

After passing part II of the tripos, specializing in chemistry, in 1919, she began graduate studies in biochemistry with Frederick G. Hopkins. Hopkins’s prominence at the time as the creator of the new field of biochemistry, as well as his gentle, self-effacing, demeanor (stemming in part from the long-term marginality of his hybrid field in the prevailing disciplinary power structure of the scientific establishment) and his quiet but staunch support of socialist agendas for greater egalitarianism among classes, races, and genders, attracted socialists and other varieties of progressive men, minorities, colonials, and especially women. Indeed, Hopkins’s former collaborator turned the first secretary of the Medical Research Council (MRC) (1919–1933) Sir Walter Morley Fletcher commented in his correspondence on the prominence of “clever Jews and talkative women” in Hopkins’s lab. Out of his five hundred research associates from many countries in the period between 1919 and 1947, 12 percent were women (J. Needham and Baldwin, 1949). At a time (1921) when Cambridge University had decided, for a second time in two decades, not to grant formal degrees to women (remaining the last university to do so, in 1948), Hopkins encouraged many women, including his daughter Barbara, to both become biochemists and marry colleagues; he even celebrated their marriages within his institute by writing poems.

Needham’s scientific path was thus influenced by her most judicious choice to specialize in biochemistry, a new field of growing opportunities, by her early association with the rising fortune of Hopkins, and a post–World War I relaxation of previous, rigid (Victorian and Edwardian) standards of social control for women. After twenty-five painful years of marginality as lecturer at Cambridge University’s Department of Physiology, Hopkins had finally begun to receive formal recognition as a professor and head of his own institute, the Sir William Dunn Institute of Biochemistry and Nutrition. He was knighted in 1925 for science advisory service in World War I on nutrition, shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in1929 for codiscovering vitamins as necessary growth factors, and became president of the Royal Society (1931–1936). Under these most fortuitous circumstances, Needham was able to continue her research in Hopkins’s department from 1919 until her retirement in 1963. At her entry in 1919, her colleagues included two other distinguished women biochemists, Muriel Wheldale Onslow, a pioneer of biochemical genetics (who can be seen in a famous photo of Hopkins and his eight research associates in 1916, half of whom were women, no doubt due to the war), and Marjory Stephenson. Needham and Stephenson, a founder of microbial biochemistry, were among the first women to be elected to the Royal Society after World War II. (Wheldale Onslow died in 1932.)

Research on Muscle Metabolism In the early 1920s, Needham worked under Hopkins on aerobic synthesis of the muscle fuel glycogen for the Food Investigation Board of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), receiving for this work the “title” of MA in 1923 and of PhD in 1926. (Women were not able to receive formal degrees in the Senate House until 1948; hence they received “titles” stating that the holder of the “title” would have had a BA or MA degree had that holder been a man.) She also received the Gamble Prize, in 1924, for an essay on “the correlation of the structure, function, and chemical composition in different types of striated muscle,” a topic that defined her research interest for the rest of her life. From 1925 to 1928 she held a Beit Memorial Fellowship, a prestigious postdoctoral research fellowship that enabled her to continue with research on muscle metabolism, while taking part in the pioneering work on the role of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in muscle contraction, a role discovered by Herbert Lohmann in Germany in 1928. She summarized this research in a book, Biochemistry of Muscle (1932), which she was repeatedly asked to update, especially after the mid-1950s. Eventually, she did so, while including both historical and contemporary material, but only after she retired from active research in 1963.

The resulting comprehensive book, Machina Carnis: The Biochemistry of Muscular Contraction in Its Historical Development (1971), covered in its twenty-four chapters many landmarks in muscle research, including the discovery of ATP in 1928; the discovery of ATPase activity of myosin by Vladimir A. Engelhardt and Militsa N. Ljubimova in 1939; the discovery of tropomyosin by Kenneth Bailey in 1946; and the discovery of the sliding filament mechanism by Hugh Huxley and Jean Hanson in 1953. Emphases upon the processes providing energy for the contraction of muscles, the structure of diverse muscle tissues, theories of muscle contraction, and dead and diseased muscle are part of a more inclusive treatment of more general biochemical topics such as cellular respiration, oxidative phosphorilation, and glycolysis.

During World War II, Needham participated in research useful to the war effort, as part of a group working for the Ministry of Supply, which focused on the effects of chemical weapons (especially mustard gas) on skin and bone-marrow metabolism. After the war she collaborated on research in protein and enzyme biochemistry (1944, 1951) while concluding her four decades of research in muscle biochemistry with a study of the proteins of smooth muscle in the uterus (1962).

In parallel with her research, Needham participated in the Department of Biochemistry’s teaching, giving both lectures and laboratory supervision, including for several PhD theses. In 1945 she was awarded an ScD by Cambridge University and was among the first women to be elected to the Royal Society, in 1948, having been preceded only by her biochemist colleague Stephenson and crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale, who were elected in 1947.

At the time of her death in 1987, at age ninety-one, Needham was collaborating on a sourcebook for the history of biochemistry in collaboration with the historian of biochemistry Mikulas Teich, who completed the book after her death. A Documentary History of Biochemistry, 1770–1940 (1992) involved the selection, translation, annotation, and historical contextualization of landmark biochemical papers for almost two centuries. It remains an indispensable tool for historians of biochemistry, who otherwise might not have been able to appreciate original texts in biochemistry, written in a variety of European languages, or to get a firsthand glimpse into interwar Cambridge biochemistry.

Dorothy Needham was also active in numerous social causes, often as a partner in a collaborative couple. As a Cambridge University scientist educated at a Cambridge college, she knew the importance of college fellowship in university life and hence helped to found two new colleges at Cambridge University for research women who had no college appointments: New Hall in 1946, and Lucy Cavendish College in 1962. With the women’s liberation movement, she was rediscovered by older colleges and was elected to fellowship by both Girton, her college as a student, and Gonville and Caius, where she participated in many college activities for a decade (1966–1976) as the master’s wife and collaborator.

Partner in a Collaborative Couple Dorothy Needham’s research, as well as her career pattern and public persona as an activist woman scientist, were defined not only by her early association with Hopkins as a uniquely enlightened scientist and the most important personality in British biochemistry; of comparable importance were the collaborative opportunities afforded by her marriage in 1924 to a biochemist colleague, Joseph Needham. Joseph Needham’s prolific activities in many fields inevitably affected Dorothy, who was often asked by Joseph to join his diverse research or social activities.

However, the Needhams were able to forge a flexible partnership that enabled each partner to pursue a personal line of research while collaborating with each other whenever such a collaboration was possible and productive.

They were part of a post–World War I generation of avant-garde scientists who sought to redefine marriage along the more egalitarian notions that prevailed in the aftermath of women’s suffrage in the 1910s and the rise of socialism in the interwar period. Many of the Needhams’ colleagues thus explored new marital patterns, such as marriages to older and more educated women, open marriages, and on the whole more egalitarian marriages than ever before. However, the Needhams were relatively rare in carving a stable social identity as a distinguished scientist and activist collaborative couple, an identity that both enabled and constrained their scientific work and personal life.

In scientific terms, the Needhams could use each other not only as a sounding board, but also as a collaborator, especially when there was time pressure or funds were lacking to hire research associates. For example, Dorothy took part in Joseph’s research in both biochemical embryology and protein structure throughout the 1930s, in addition to her own ongoing research in muscle biochemistry. Though Dorothy worked on the British war effort during World War II, she also joined Joseph in China for almost two years during 1944–1945, while serving as a chemical advisor to the Sino-British mission that he directed in China in the period 1942–1946. That mission provided scientific and technical assistance to Chinese scientists, then under siege by the Japanese occupation of China’s coastal parts, and also shaped Joseph Needham’s decision to transfer his postwar research effort to the comparative history of Chinese science.

Though the Needhams no longer collaborated scientifically after the war, when Joseph devoted himself to a new historical undertaking, Dorothy remained helpful to him for his lecturing duties as reader of biochemistry, until the mid-1960s (when he became master of Gonville and Caius), by providing and updating material, something that only a practicing biochemist could do. Along these lines, Dorothy’s work on her comprehensive book Machina Carnis (1971) benefited from her husband’s scholarly experience with the history of science.

Dorothy Needham’s professional status was nevertheless adversely affected by her status as a woman scientist married to a colleague. While Joseph had early job security, from the age of twenty-four, when he both completed his PhD and was elected to fellowship by Gonville and Caius College, Dorothy’s research was to rely on research grants (“soft money”), mostly from governmental sources such as DSIR, the MRC and the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) in the United Kingdom, and the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). This form of support worked out during Hopkins’s life, especially because successive MRC secretaries, such as Walter Fletcher in the 1920s and Edward Mellanby in the 1930s and 1940s, were among Hopkins’s admirers, as well as during Joseph’s research period, when she was often needed as a collaborator.

However, Dorothy’s lack of a formal position and salary also led to difficult situations in the early 1950s, when the MRC declined to renew her modest grants on the ground that temporary grants should not become a permanent form of support. While a university fund provided relief for three years, she was initially denied research grants by the Royal Society because its president, Lord Adrian, believed that married women had no need for a salary of their own. Eventually, she was able to get research grants from the ARC. Because by that time Joseph was no longer active in biochemical research, Dorothy’s predicament—as a woman scientist whose marital status was used to deny her either a regular salary or an independent grant, despite scientific distinction as a Fellow of the Royal Society and departmental service of three decades—became only too clear in the 1950s. Ironically a period when funding of science became particularly abundant, science policy in the 1950s was slow to benefit women scientists, especially when they could no longer be treated as collaborators of their husbands.

However, both Needhams reaped the benefits of being an activist couple in the social and political sphere. As the only couple marching in DSc gowns in Cambridge University processions (since 1945), and after 1948, when Dorothy was among the first women to be elected to the Royal Society (Joseph had been elected in 1941), as the only F.R.S. couple in Cambridge, the Needhams were aware that they symbolized a rare success to both collaborate and retain independent careers. Theirs was a remarkable predicament because it signaled the compatibility of career and family life for both men and women, at a time most women were forced to choose one over the other.

The Needhams also cultivated a joint identity as a socially and politically active couple (Werskey, 1978, traces about a dozen such couples at Cambridge in the 1930s) who both shared many causes—for example, both sat on the Cambridge Trade Council as representatives of the Association of Scientific Workers—but also each retained a unique constellations of social activities. Thus, while Dorothy ran on a Labour Party ticket to the Cambridge Town Council, Joseph became secretary of the Cornford-Maclaurin Fund, which aided families of the fallen in the Spanish Civil War. They each had a wide range of humanitarian and charitable causes, including for Dorothy: Amnesty International; Animals’ Vigilantes; Anti-Nuclear Campaign; Cambridge Welfare and Preservation Societies; Cambridge University’s Newcomers Club; El Salvador Committee for Human Rights; Friends of the Earth; Medical and Scientific Aid for Vietnam, Laos and Kampuchea; Medical and Scientific Committee for Soviet Jewry; and the Movement for the Ordination of Women.

The Needhams enjoyed many important and influential friendships with other couples, for example, with the British historians Charles and Dorothea Singer, and the French biochemists Louis and Sarah Rapkine; as well as individual friendships with scientists and other colleagues, including members of the Biotheoretical Gathering. This “scientific Bloomsbury” of the 1930s, in which the Needhams were the only scientist couple, saw Dorothy often admonishing Joseph for jumping to theoretical conclusions prior to conducting experimental work, or declining the generous offer of their close friends, the Woodgers, to assist them in having children, by the “radical” methods of that time.

Now that Dorothy Needham’s archival papers are cataloged, at Girton College’s Library of Cambridge University in Cambridge, U.K., historians may be able to get more complete answers to questions such as her role in muscle biochemistry, her role in college life (especially the founding of two new women’s colleges), the workings of a collaborative marriage in science and social activism over half a century, and her own way toward a major accomplishment in the history of science.



With Dorothy Lilian Foster. “A Contribution to the Study of the Interconversion of Carbohydrate and Lactic Acid in Muscle.” Biochemical Journal 15 (1921): 672–680.

Biochemistry of Muscle. London: Methuen, 1932.

With J. Needham and C. H. Waddington. “Physico-chemical Experiments on the Amphibian Organizer.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 114 (1934): 393–422.

With Mary Dainty, et al. “Studies on the Anomalous Viscosity and Flow-Birefringence of Protein Solutions.” Journal of General Physiology 27 (1944): 355–399.

With Joseph Needham, eds. Science Outpost Papers of the Sino-British Science Cooperation Office in China, 1942–1946. London: Pilot Press, 1948.

With Joseph Needham. “Sir F. G. Hopkins’ Personal Influence and Characteristics.” In Hopkins and Biochemistry, edited by Joseph Needham and Ernest Baldwin, 111–122. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, 1949.

“Myosin Adenosinetriphosphate in Relation to Muscle Contraction.” In Metabolism and Function, a Collection of Papers Dedicated to Otto Meyerhof on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, edited by David Nachmansohn, 42–59.

Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1950.

With Louis Siminovitch and Sarah M. Rapkine. “On the Mechanism of the Inhibition of Glycolysis by Glyceraldehyde.” Biochemical Journal 49 (1951): 113–124.

“Contractile Proteins in the Smooth Muscle of the Uterus.”

Physiological Reviews 42, supp. 5 (1962): 89–96.

Machina Carnis: The Biochemistry of Muscular Contraction in Its Historical Development. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

With Mikulas Teich. A Documentary History of Biochemistry, 1770–1940. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992.


Abir-Am, Pnina G. “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.

_____. “Collaborative Couples Who Strove to Change the World: The Social Policies and Personal Tensions of the Russells, the Myrdals, and the Mead-Batesons.” In Creative Couples in the Sciences, edited by Helena M. Pycior, Nancy G. Slack, and Pnina G. Abir-Am, 267–281. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

Bradbrook, Muriel C. “That Infidel Place”: A Short History of Girton College, 1869–1969 . Cambridge, U.K.: Girton College, 1984. See especially chapter five, “The Girton Girl: Social Images from Within and Without,” pp. 91–120.

Huxley, H. E. “A Personal View of Muscle and Motility Mechanisms.” Annual Review of Physiology 58 (1996): 1–19.

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

Mason, Joan. “The Women Fellows’ Jubilee.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 49, no. 1 (January 1995): 125–140.

Needham, Joseph. Order and Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1936; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968; dedicated to members of the Biotheoretical Gathering, including Dorothy Needham.

_____. “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.

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

Needham, Joseph, and 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.

Szent-Gyorgyi, Andrew G. “The Early History of the Biochemistry of Muscle Contraction.” Journal of General Physiology 123 (2004): 631–641.

Teich, Mikulas. “Dorothy Moyle Needham, 22 September 1896–22 December 1987.” Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 49 (2003): 351–366.

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

Pnina G. Abir-Am