Needham, Joseph


Needham, Joseph
▪ 1996

      British biochemist and scientific historian (b. Dec. 9, 1900, London, England—d. March 24, 1995, Cambridge, England), published Science and Civilisation in China, a remarkable multivolume study of nearly every branch of Chinese medicine, science, and technology over some 25 centuries. Needham matriculated at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (Ph.D., 1924; Sc.D., 1932). Although he traveled extensively and held numerous teaching positions, he spent most of his academic career at Caius, as a fellow (1924-66), president (1959-66), master (1966-76), and senior fellow (from 1976). He was also university demonstrator (1928-33) and Sir William Dunn reader (1933-66) in biochemistry and director of the Needham Research Institute. Needham's early research was mainly in embryology, and his published works include the massive three-volume Chemical Embryology (1931) and Biochemistry and Morphogenesis (1942). In 1942 his longtime interest in Chinese language and scholarship led to his appointment as a scientific adviser to China. Four years later he helped found UNESCO. Initially, Needham planned to write a short book on the differences between Western and Chinese scientific principles and traditions. By the time the first volume appeared in 1954, however, the project had expanded to seven volumes. Eventually he supervised a staff of dozens of writers and researchers; the work was still incomplete at the time of his death. Needham was elected a fellow of the Royal Society (1941) and of the British Academy (1971). He was made a Companion of Honour in 1992.

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▪ British biochemist
in full  Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham  
born Dec. 9, 1900, London, England
died March 24, 1995, Cambridge

      English biochemist, embryologist, and historian of science who wrote and edited the landmark history Science and Civilisation in China, a comprehensive study of Chinese scientific development.

      The son of a physician, Needham earned a doctoral degree in 1924 from the University of Cambridge, then joined its new Dunn Institute of Biochemistry. His interest in the history of science was evident from the long preface to his three-volume Chemical Embryology (1931), which he published separately as A History of Embryology in 1934. In the late 1930s his collaboration with Chinese biochemists sparked his interest in China's language and civilization, and as head of a British scientific mission in China (1942–46) Needham traveled throughout the country collecting rare scientific books and manuscripts. After serving as director of natural sciences for UNESCO (1946–48), he returned to Cambridge and began work on Science and Civilisation in China.

      Science and Civilisation in China surveys the history of Chinese chemistry, mechanics, navigation, medicine, and other disciplines. As the massive work progressed, additional scholars assisted Needham in its writing; six of its seven planned volumes were completed by Needham and his colleagues at the time of his death. The work examined the relationship between the Confucian and Taoist traditions and Chinese scientific innovation and explored the differences between Chinese and Western philosophies of scientific inquiry.

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Universalium. 2010.

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