Joseph Needham (December 9, 1900 – March 24 1995) was a British biochemist and pre-eminent authority on the history of Chinese science. He pioneered the Western academic recognition of China's scientific past with the ongoing, monumental Science and Civilisation in China Series (SCC, also known as History of Science in China in some Asian sources). This encyclopaedic opus magum revealed the historical development of Chinese science. Needham's Grand Question was raised about stagnation of China's technological development.
Needham was the only child of a Scottish family in London: his father was a doctor and his mother, Alicia Adelaïde Needham née Montgomery (1863-1945) was a composer and music teacher. Needham studied at Cambridge University, received his bachelor's degree in 1921, 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.
Three Chinese scientists came to work with Needham in 1936: Lu Gwei-djen, Wang Ying-lai, and Chen Shi-chang. Lu (1904 - 1991), 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, collaborating with the historian Wang Ling and solidifying his passion for Chinese scientific history. He also met numerous Chinese scholars including painter Wu Zuoren , 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 the 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. He also supported and actually signed the unfounded Chinese communist claims of American biological warfare as an inspector from 1952 to 1953 in North Korea during the Korean War.
The Needham Research Institute in Cambridge, devoted to the study of China's scientific history, was opened in 1987 by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
Needham was first married to Dorothy Moyle (née Moyle, 1896-1987). Two years after Dorothy's death (1989), Needham was re-married to Lu Gwei-djen. He suffered from Parkinson's disease since 1982, and died at the age of 94 at his Cambridge home.
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