Papers and correspondence of Joseph Needham ,1900-1995

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 62 95/10/5
  • Dates of Creation
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      5 boxes

Scope and Content

The papers relate to Needham's service as a member of the World Peace Council sponsored 1952 International Scientific Commission investigation of alleged United States use of bacteriological warfare in North Korea and north east China during the Korean War, and subsequent material relating to the findings of the Commission and to chemical and biological warfare generally.

Administrative / Biographical History

Needham was born in London on 9 December 1900, the son of Joseph Needham (1852-1920) and Alicia Adelaide Needham, ne Montgomery (1863-ca 1940). His father was a London doctor specialising in anaesthesia and his mother achieved some fame as a pianist and a composer of songs. Joseph Needham was educated at Oundle School 1914-1918 and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge 1918-1922 where he studied for the Natural Sciences Tripos, specialising in physiology with biochemistry as a subsidiary subject. Needham then went on to postgraduate research in the Cambridge Biochemistry Department under F.G.Hopkins. He held a Benn Levy Studentship 1922-1924, studying the biochemistry of inositol. He was elected a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College in 1924 and in the same year married Dorothy Mary Moyle (1896-1987), a fellow researcher in the Biochemistry Department who achieved scientific distinction in her own right (FRS 1948). Needham was appointed University Demonstrator in Biochemistry in 1928 and in 1933 succeeded J.B.S. Haldane as Sir William Dunn Reader in Biochemistry. He held this post until 1966 when he became Master of Gonville and Caius College. He retired from the Mastership in 1976.

Needham's early biochemical research focused on embryology. He studied the development of a complex and sophisticated organism with specialised organs from a single fertilised egg-cell. In his three volume book Chemical Embryology published in 1931, Needham explained embryological development as a chemical process, rejecting the view that such development was caused by an undefined vital spark. He then extended this work with research into various aspects of morphology, culminating in his 1942 book Biochemistry and Morphogenesis. As well as these two books, Needham produced three other major books on biochemistry and numerous scientific papers. He combined this high rate of productivity in biochemistry with a prolific output of articles on religious, political and philosophical subjects. Many of these were subsequently republished in Needham's four collections of articles and essays The sceptical biologist (1929), The Great Amphibium (1931), Time the refreshing river (1943) and History is on our side (1946). Needham also gave many lectures, likewise on philosophical, religious and political subjects as well as those of purely biochemical interest. Of particular note are the 1935 Terry Lectures on 'Order and Life' delivered at Yale University, and his Herbert Spencer lecture 'Integrative levels; a revaluation of the idea of Progress' at Oxford, May 1937. In addition to his contributions to Cambridge biochemistry Needham was an important figure in the establishment of the history of science as an academic discipline at the university. He was a founder member of the Cambridge History of Science Lectures Committee in 1936 and after the Second World War served on the History of Science Committee and the History and Philosophy of Science Committee until 1971. Needham was also a leading figure in International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science. He served on the Council of the Division of the History of Science 1969-1977 (President 1972-1974) and was President of the Union 1972-1975.

Needham's interest in China was awakened by Chinese students at Cambridge from the mid 1930s. He began to learn Mandarin Chinese and study Chinese history, particularly the Chinese contribution to science which he believed was overlooked by western historians. Needham also became an enthusiastic supporter of British academic assistance to Chinese universities. He and Dorothy Needham volunteered to go to China to help in the reconstruction of academic science there. The outbreak of war in Europe set back their plans but in 1942 Needham went to China as Head of the British Scientific Mission and later Scientific Counsellor to H.B.M. Embassy at Chungking (then the 'acting-capital' of China). He also acted as advisor to various arms of the Chinese government and military. Under the auspices of the British Council Needham established the Sino-British Science Cooperation Office (SBSCO). The SBSCO was responsible for assessing the needs of Chinese scientific, technological and medical institutions and researchers, and facilitating the supply of equipment and medicines, books and journals to China. Needham was Director of the SBSCO and Dorothy Needham was Associate Director.

The success of the SBSCO was the immediate inspiration for Needham's vision of postwar international science co-operation. With the form of the future United Nations organisation under intense discussion Needham sent three memoranda to a wide range of political and scientific leaders pressing for the inclusion of scientific co-operation under its auspices. He argued that the proposed United Nations Educational and Cultural Organisation should include science within its remit and he may have been the first to use the abbreviation 'UNESCO'. In 1946 Needham left the SBSCO and was appointed the first Director of the Section of Natural Sciences of UNESCO, serving for two years. On his return to Cambridge in 1948 Needham began work on his new project - a history of the contribution of China to science and civilisation. This monumental work was to occupy Needham for most of the rest of his life; the first volume of Science and Civilisation in China appeared in 1954 and by his death it had run to sixteen volumes. This immense work of scholarship found a permanent home with the later establishment in Cambridge of the Needham Research Institute as a centre for research on Chinese science.

Needham's political sympathies lay very much with the Left. He was a member of the Labour party and in the 1930s served on the executive committee of the university branch. Needham was also an active member of the Cambridge Scientists' Anti-War Group, which campaigned against militarism. From 1937 to 1939 Needham served as Treasurer of the Cornford-Maclaurin Memorial Committee, set up in memory of two Cambridge men killed fighting with the International Brigade to raise funds for the republican cause in Spain. On the outbreak of the Second World War he participated in discussions among Communist party members and others on the Left as to whether they should support the British war effort and after the German attack on the USSR in 1941 was active in promoting Anglo-Soviet Friendship until his departure for China. After the war Needham supported peace and disarmament campaigns and organisations seeking to further international understanding. His strong sympathies for China led to his being a founder of the Britain-China Friendship Association, of which he was President, and its successor the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding, of which he was Chairman. In 1952 Needham served on an international scientific commission investigating alleged American use of bacteriological weapons in North Korea and China. The commission's report concluded that the US had indeed been using such weapons and this resulted in intense criticism of him in Britain. He opposed the Vietnam war and this led him to refuse invitations to conferences or to lecture in the USA during the 1960s and early 1970s. He was also much concerned for human rights and civil liberties, both at home and abroad, and believed strongly in the social responsibility of the scientist.

Needham was a religious man. From his student days he was a high church Anglican but combined this with a commitment to social justice. In the 1930s Needham was active in propagating a highly political Christianity emphasising its closeness to Marxism. He was a member of the ad hoc editorial board behind the controversial book Christianity and the social revolution (1935), to which he also contributed a chapter 'Laud, the Levellers and the Virtuosi'. This and writings such as The Levellers and the English revolution (1939), published under the name 'Henry Holorenshaw', linked radical Christianity of the seventeenth century with the politics of the twentieth century. Needham was also drawn to Daoism, which he believed offered hope of reconciliation between science and religion. This concern also led to his Presidency of the Teilhard de Chardin Centre for the Future of Mankind. His religious outlook notwithstanding, Needham was also an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association.

Needham was elected FRS in 1941 and FBA in 1971 one of the very few to obtain this double distinction. In 1992 he was appointed a Companion of Honour. Needham died in 1995, outliving both Dorothy Needham, who died in 1987, and his second wife Gwei-Djen Lu, whom he had married in 1989 but who died in 1991.

Access Information

The Department of Documents is, subject to the discretion of the Keeper, open to all members of the public over the age of 15. Access to some collections is governed by special conditions which readers are bound to observe.

Other Finding Aids

Printed catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Joseph Needham (1900-1995), by T.E. Powell and P. Harper, NCUACS catalogue no. 55/4/95, 32 pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath.

Separated Material

Needham's papers and correspondence, 1871-1995, were deposited in Cambridge University Library.

Custodial History

The material was deposited in the Department of Documents, Imperial War Museum by Joseph Needham in 1992, as a result of arrangements following an oral history interview in 1987. It was received for cataloguing by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists in December 1993 from the Imperial War Museum and the catalogued material was returned in 1995.

Related Material

Books on chemical and biological warfare donated by Needham to the Imperial War Museum are held by the Department of Printed Books.