Joseph Needham: Papers and Correspondence

Scope and Content

The collection includes important records of Needham's family background, his career as a biochemist, his work with the Sino-British Science Cooperation Office and UNESCO, and his political and religious interests. The collection is divided into the following sections:

A. Biographical. The largest section, including correspondence with his parents, which covers his childhood and school-days, and his time as a student at Cambridge. Needham's later career is less well documented, but there is material regarding his election to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1941. There is also material relating to his religious activites and writings. The largest component is the papers of his mother, Alicia Adelaide Needham. The section also documents some of the trade union and charitable bodies with which Needham was associated, social engagements and functions, and family and personal finance.

B. Cambridge. This section includes documentation of the Department of Biochemistry, general University matters, the development of the history of science at Cambridge, the Faculty of Oriental Studies, and Gonville and Caius College. The bulk of the material relates to the Department of Biochemistry.

C. Sino-British Science Cooperation Office (SBSCO). There is correspondence on the origins of the China mission and from Needham's time in China, and later correspondence arising from contacts he made while in that country. There are also manuscript notes on his visits to scientific, medical, industrial and educational institutions; manuscripts and typescript drafts for lectures; detailed reports of travels within China for the British Council; and publications arising from his work.

D. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Papers documenting Needham's role in the establishment of UNESCO and his Directorship of the Section of Natural Sciences.

E. Research. Undergraduate and research work covering the period 1924-1942, representing a record of Needham's work in biochemistry and embryology from undergraduate notes and essays, postgraduate studies and research in embryology and morphology in the 1920s and 1930s, to research completed just before his departure for China in 1942. The section also includes undergraduate and postgraduate lecture notes, notes on literature, and research material, 1924-1942.

F. Publications. Material relating chiefly to Needham's pre-war and wartime publications. The section includes drafts of many of his scientific papers and books, and also writings on philosophical, religious and political themes. In addition, there are a number of Needham's translations of Chinese and Polish texts.

G. Lectures and broadcasts. Papers concerning Needham's public and invitation lectures delivered on scientific, philosophical, political and religious subjects, 1921-1977. There is also a little material relating to broadcasts, and invitations (1927-1974) either declined or for which there is no evidence of acceptance.

H. Visits and conferences. A chronological sequence of material relating to some of Needham's visits and conferences, 1920-1984. Needham's political and religious concerns are covered, in addition to his biochemical interests. The sequence includes many invitations declined.

J. Societies and organisations. There is a substantial amount of material relating to Needham's involvement with 44 British and international societies and organisations, notably the Theoretical Biology Club.

K. Politics. Papers documenting Needham's wide-ranging and active involvement in the politics of the Left, including documentation of the Labour Party in 1930s Cambridge, and links with the Chinese Communist government after 1949. The section also includes material relating to Needham's interest in civil liberties, academic freedom and the role of the scientist as political activist.

L. Religion and society. The section includes documentation of Needham's association with various religious and humanist organisations, among them the Oldham Group and the Teilhard Centre for the Future of Man, and religious and philosophical literature, including tracts, sermons and offprints. Much of this is concerned with the relationship between science and religion.

M. Correspondence. The correspondents include Jean Brachet, J.K.F. Holtfreter, Basile Marza, C.H. Waddington, and J.H. Woodger. The pre-war correspondence is mainly incoming letters, relating to some aspect of Needham's scientific research. The post-war correspondence has a higher proportion of letters relating to Needham's philosophical, political and religious concerns. Extensive correspondence also exists in other sections, where it is retained with the material with which it was found.

Supplementary material. Additional biographical material relating to Needham's university studies, his subsequent career, honours and awards, and his family, in particular his mother Alicia Adelaide Needham and his second wife Lu Gwei-Djen. There is further material relating to Cambridge University, the SBSCO and UNESCO, and research notes and drafts, predominantly from the period from 1929 to the 1930s. There is extensive publications material, particularly for pre-war and wartime publications; some material relating to lectures on scientific and religious topics, 1928-1990; and a chronological sequence of visits and conferences material, 1931-1988. There is also a correspondence section covering 1923-1994.

Administrative / Biographical History

Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham (1900-1995) was born in London on 9 December 1900. He was educated at Oundle School, 1914-1918, and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, 1918-1922, where he studied the Natural Sciences Tripos, specialising in physiology, with biochemistry as a subsidiary subject. He proceeded to postgraduate research in the Cambridge Biochemistry Department under Frederick Gowland Hopkins. Needham held a Benn Levy Studentship, 1922-1924, studying the biochemistry of inositol. In 1924 he was elected a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, and in 1928 became University Demonstrator in Biochemistry. In 1933 he succeeded J.B.S. Halbane as Sir William Dunn Reader in Biochemistry. He held the post until 1966, when he became Master of Gonville and Caius College, a position he held until his retirement in 1976.

Needham's early biochemical research focused on embryology, which he described in his book, Chemical embryology (1931). He proceeded to research various aspects of morphology, which culminated in Biochemistry and morphogenesis (1942). Needham produced three other major books on biochemistry, as well as numerous scientific papers. He was also an important figure in the development of biochemistry in Cambridge. He was a founder member of the History of Science Lectures Committee in 1936, which set up a programme of lectures on the history of science, and served on other scientific committees and councils. Needham also wrote many articles on religious, political and philosophical subjects, and gave many lectures on these subjects, as well as on biochemistry.

During the mid 1930s Needham developed an interest in China, and began to study Mandarin Chinese and Chinese history. He volunteered to aid the reconstruction of academic science in the country, and travelled to China in 1942. Under the auspices of the British Council he established the Sino-British Science Cooperation Office (SBSCO), and became its Director. The SBSCO was responsible for assessing the needs of Chinese scientific, technological and medical institutions and researchers, and facilitating the supply of equipment, medicines, books and journals to China. In 1954 Needham produced the first of 16 volumes of Science and civilisation in China, a history of the contribution of China to science and civilisation. In later years the Needham Research Institute was established in Cambridge as a centre for research on Chinese science.

The success of the SBSCO encouraged Needham to argue that the United Nations Educational and Cultural Organisation, which was then under proposal, should include science within its remit. As a result, when Needham left the SBSCO in 1946 he was appointed the first Director of the Section of Natural Sciences of UNESCO, a position he held for two years.

Needham was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1941, and became a Fellow of the British Academy in 1971. In 1992 he was appointed a Companion of Honour.

Access Information

Access to some of the material is restricted. The rest of the collection is open for consultation by holders of a Reader's Ticket valid for the Manuscripts Reading Room.

Acquisition Information

Original material received from Professor Needham, 1976; supplementary material received from the Needham Research Institute, 2000.


Description compiled by Robert Steiner, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, with reference to the catalogues prepared by Timothy E. Powell and Peter Harper.

Other Finding Aids

There is a catalogue for the initial deposit, and another for the supplementary material, both prepared by Timothy E. Powell and Peter Harper for the National Cataloguing Unit for the Papers of Contemporary Scientists (University of Bath).

Related Material

Papers relating to Needham's Mastership of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, 1966-1976, are held by the College Archives.

Papers relating to Needham's work on Science and civilisation in China, are held at the Needham Research Institute, Sylvester Road, Cambridge.

Needham's papers and correspondence relating to chemical and biological warfare, 1952-1989, are deposited in the Department of Documents, Imperial War Museum, London.

The papers and correspondence of Needham's wife, Dorothy Needham, are deposited in the Library of Girton College, Cambridge.

Geographical Names