Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Joseph Needham CH FRS (1900-1995), biochemist and historian of science

This record is held by Cambridge University Library: Department of Manuscripts and University Archives

Details of Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Joseph Needham CH FRS (1900-1995), biochemist and historian of science
Title: Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Joseph Needham CH FRS (1900-1995), biochemist and historian of science
Reference: NCUACS 54.3.95



























The material is presented in the order given in the List of Contents. The collection is very extensive and 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.


Section A, Biographical, is the largest in the collection. Needham's childhood and school-days are represented chiefly by correspondence with his parents. His period as an undergraduate and postgraduate at Cambridge is documented by correspondence with his mother and material concerning his religious activities, including his membership of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd and the Guild of St Luke and some of his religious writings. Needham's later career is less well documented, although there is material relating to his election to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1941.


The largest component of the section is the papers of his mother, Alicia Adelaide Needham, which were inherited by Joseph Needham on her death. These include her autobiography 'A Daughter of Music', her diaries covering the period 1879-1924, a long sequence of her musical compositions (many of which were published) together with other material relating to her career as pianist and composer, and an extensive correspondence 1877-1921. In addition there is a little material relating to Needham's father and maternal grandfather. Family material also includes papers relating to Needham's cousin Elizabeth Montgomery Wilson, a nurse who served in the 1899-1902 South African War. The papers include photographs, letters and memorabilia from her time in South Africa.


The section also documents some of the trades union and charitable bodies with which Needham was associated, social engagements and functions (many at Cambridge 1919-1937), and family and personal finance 1933-1959.


Section B, Cambridge, includes documentation of the Department of Biochemistry, general University matters, the development of 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. This is chiefly syllabuses, bibliographical references, notes on the literature, annotated offprints etc used for Needham's lectures on biochemistry to postgraduates in the 1950s and 1960s. There is also significant material regarding the funding of research in the Department, 1925-1943, and visitors to the Department. Also of interest is correspondence and papers relating to Needham's contribution to the co-ordination of wartime biological and biochemical research in Cambridge. This includes papers of the Biochemistry Subcommittee of the Advisory Research Council of the Chemical Society and the Biology War Committee, set up to continue the co-ordination of research.


The documentation of Needham's role in the establishment of the history and philosophy of science as an academic discipline in Cambridge University includes papers from the History of Science Lectures Committee 1936-1937 and, postwar, the History of Science Committee and the History and Philosophy of Science Committee.


Section C, Sino-British Science Cooperation Office (SBSCO), includes correspondence on the origins of the China mission, chiefly relating to the Needhams' support for Chinese academics and students 1939-1942 and arrangements for Needham's journey to China in 1942, and correspondence from Needham's time in China and later correspondence arising from the contacts he made while in China. There are also Needham's manuscript notes on his visits to scientific, medical, industrial and educational institutions throughout China, manuscript and typescript drafts for lectures - frequently delivered in association with his visits to various institutions, detailed reports of travels within China for the British Council, and publications arising from his work, including accounts for Nature and material relating to his book Science Outpost in which he described the work of the SBSCO.


Section D, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), documents Needham's role in the establishment of UNESCO and his Directorship of the Section of Natural Sciences. From an early date Needham kept material he believed would be of historical significance, particularly those papers relating to his three memoranda on the establishment of international science co-operation and the creation of UNESCO. The largest component is material relating to the Section of Natural Sciences 1946-1948. There are also papers from meetings of the UNESCO Executive, and papers relating to the project for a Scientific and Cultural History of Mankind. The section also includes papers of the British Committee for Co-operation with UNESCO in the Natural Sciences.


Section E, Undergraduate and research work, presents 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. There are notebooks used for undergraduate notes on lectures by many leading Cambridge scientists including Hopkins, H. Hartridge, R.A. Peters and Barcroft, notebooks used during long vacation courses, and notebooks covering research from 1921 to 1943. The research notebooks are particularly striking for the high quality of information they present. The entries usually identify the nature of the experiment and its date and are often annotated with remarks on why the results of particular experiments were not as expected, what might have gone wrong and how this might be remedied. The section also includes undergraduate and postgraduate lecture notes, notes on the literature, and research material 1924-1942. The research material was mostly found in Needham's folders with a note of the subject inscribed thereon. The notes, bibliographical references, offprints and correspondence found in these folders may cover a period of many years, reflecting Needham's continuing interest in all aspects of research into embryology and morphology.


Section F, Publications, is extensive but chiefly relates to Needham's pre-war and wartime publications. Included in the section are not only drafts of many of his scientific papers and books but also writings on philosophical, religious and political themes. A number of his more scientific works are particularly well-documented. These include his philosophical monograph Man a Machine (1927) and his two most significant biochemistry books Chemical Embryology (1931) and Biochemistry and Morphogenesis (1942). Among Needham's political writings represented are his article 'Laud, the Levellers and the Virtuosi', published in Christianity and the social revolution (1935), and The Levellers and the English revolution (1939), which was published under the name 'Henry Holorenshaw'. There is also good documentation of the books The sceptical biologist, (1929), The Nazi Attack on International Science (1941), Science in Soviet Russia (1942), and his two final collections of articles Time the refreshing river and History is on our side, published in 1943 and 1946 respectively. Needham's later publications represented include his paper 'History and Human Values: a Chinese perspective for world science and technology', published in the Centennial Review and subsequently in The radicalisation of science. Ideology of/in the natural sciences (1976) edited by S.P.R. and H. Rose.


The section also includes a number of Needham's translations of Polish and Chinese texts, including Green Thraldom by Tang Pei-Sung (1949), extensive editorial correspondence, including requests to write articles or books, and an incomplete set of Needham's offprints.


Section G, Lectures and broadcasts, presents some of 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. Among Needham's lectures documented here are the Terry Lectures on 'Order and Life' at Yale University, 1935, the Herbert Spencer lecture on 'Integrative levels', Oxford, 1937, the Schiff Foundation Lecture on 'The position of science in Europe today', delivered at Cornell University, October 1940, and his 1961 commemorative lecture on 'The Life and Work of Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins' delivered at Cambridge. The section also includes invitations either declined or for which there is no evidence or acceptance, 1927-1974. Broadcasts material includes a BBC radio talk by Needham on 'Recent advances in medical science', broadcast from Glasgow, 19 August 1923.


Section H, Visits and conferences, presents a chronological sequence of material relating to some of Needham's visits and conferences 1920-1984. It is similar to sections F and G in representing not only Needham's biochemical interests but also his political and religious concerns. Thus the section includes conferences of the Student Christian Movement held at Swanwick in Derbyshire in the 1920s and 1930s and the 1936 World Congress of Faiths. There is correspondence and papers relating to his visit to the USA in 1940, during which scientific engagements were combined with lectures on the position of science in Europe, with particular emphasis on the damage to scholarship caused by the Nazis. Also particularly well-documented are the 220th Anniversary of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, June 1945, the First International Congress of Biochemistry, Cambridge, August 1949, Needham's visit to the USA March - May 1950 as the Hitchcock Visiting Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the First Congress of Polish Science held in Warsaw, 1951. The sequence includes many invitations declined. From the late 1950s Needham declined many invitations, being occupied with his work on Science and Civilisation in China, and he also refused to visit the USA during the period of American involvement in Vietnam as an expression of his disapproval of US government policy.


Section J, Societies and organisations, is substantial. It brings together documentation of Needham's involvement with 44 British and international societies and organisations. However, the material relating to scientific societies is disappointing. Perhaps of most interest are papers of the Theoretical Biology Club, an informal gathering of biologists and others established by J.H. Woodger in 1932 to discuss philosophical implications of developments in the biological sciences, and papers from meetings of the Society of Experimental Biology and the Physiological Society. Needham's interest in the history of science is better documented in the papers of a number of organisations including the Académie Internationale d'Histoire des Sciences and the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science. Needham's international outlook is illustrated by his chairmanship of the Commission on the University of Ceylon in 1958, for which there is extensive documentation, and his support of the World Academy of Art and Science from its foundation in 1959. Other societies and organisations for which there is substantial material include the Louis Rapkine Memorial Fund Appeal and the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science.


Section K, Politics, documents Needham's wide-ranging and active involvement in politics of the Left. Pre-war material includes documentation of the Labour Party in Cambridge in the mid-1930s, including Dorothy Needham's campaigns as a Labour candidate for Cambridge City Council in 1935 and 1936, and the Cambridge Scientists Anti-War Group. There are also comprehensive records of fund-raising for the Cornford-Maclaurin Memorial Committee, and notes of the discussions which took place among Cambridge Communists and sympathisers on the outbreak of the Second World War as to whether they should support the British war effort. Post-war documentation suggests Needham played a less active role in British political life. Most of this material relates to his support of peace and disarmament campaigns.


Needham's international outlook, naturally focused on China, is well-represented in the papers. After the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949 Needham was keen to strengthen links between the Peking government and the UK. Both the Britain-China Friendship Association and its successor organisation the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding are documented, especially the response of these organisations to the border dispute between India and China, the ideological conflict between China and the USSR and the Cultural Revolution. There is also material relating to the 1952 International Scientific Commission investigating the alleged US use of bacteriological weapons in North Korea and China, opposition to the Vietnam war, and to Needham's concern about human rights abuses worldwide, reflected in papers of organisations such as Amnesty International.


The section also includes material relating to Needham's interest in civil liberties, academic freedom and the role of the scientist as political activist. Represented are organisations such as the Association of Scientific Workers, the National Council for Civil Liberties, the Society for Freedom in Science and the World Federation of Scientific Workers. There is also a little material on environmental causes, most notably the Anti Concorde Project 1967-1975.


Section L, Religion and society, represents Needham's more religious and philosphical concerns. It includes documentation of his association with various religious (and humanist) organisations including 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.


Section M, Correspondence, consists of a sequence of longer exchanges arranged alphabetically by correspondent, a sequence of shorter exchanges and single letters arranged chronologically and, for convenience, sequences of correspondence relating to China, Poland and the Soviet Union, and with British and international orientalists, kept together by Needham. Correspondents of particular note include Jean Brachet, the refugee German scientist J.K.F. Holtfreter, the Roumanian scientist Basile Marza, C.H. Waddington and J.H. Woodger, founder of the Theoretical Biology Club. The pre-war correspondence is chiefly incoming letters, there are few carbon copies or drafts of outgoing letters. Most of the letters relate to some aspect of Needham's scientific research. The postwar correspondence has a higher proportion of letters relating to Needham's philosophical, political and religious concerns.


It should be noted that there is extensive correspondence throughout the catalogue. Much of Needham's correspondence is to be found in other sections where it is retained with the material with which it was found.


There is also a conspectus to the partial listing of Needham papers and correspondence compiled by G. Werskey in 1968

Date: 1871-1995
Held by: Cambridge University Library: Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, not available at The National Archives
Language: English
Extent: ca 3400 items
Administrative History:

Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery (known as Joseph) was born in London on 9 December 1900, the son of Joseph Needham (1852-1920) and Alicia Adelaide Needham, née Montgomery (1863-ca.1940). His father was a London doctor specialising in anaesthetics and his mother achieved some fame as a pianist and 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 Frederick Gowland 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 Department. Dorothy Needham was to become an eminent biochemist 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 in addition to 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.


As well as his contributions to the development of biochemistry in Cambridge Needham was an important figure in the establishment of the history of science as an academic discipline at Cambridge. He was a founder member of the History of Science Lectures Committee in 1936 which set up a programme of lectures in the history of science, featuring some of the greatest scientists of the time - including Barcroft, W.H. Bragg, Haldane, Eddington, Hopkins and Rutherford - lecturing on the history of their disciplines. After the Second World War he served on the History of Science Committee and the History and Philosophy of Science Committee until 1971. Needham was also a leading figure in the 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 had been overlooked by western historians. Needham also became an enthusiastic supporter of British academic assistance to Chinese universities. Joseph and Dorothy Needham volunteered to go to China to help in 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'. It was appropriate that in 1946 when Needham left the SBSCO he was appointed the first Director of the Section of Natural Sciences of UNESCO. He served 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. Among those Chinese students who had first encouraged Needham's interest in China was Lu Gwei-Djen, a research student studying under Dorothy Needham in the late 1930s. The Needhams became close friends with Lu and their careers came together again when she returned to Cambridge in 1957 to assist Needham in this work. 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 interest in Chinese civilisation led to his appointment in 1949 to the University Faculty Board of Oriental Languages (later Oriental Studies).


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 on the left of the party and from 1933 was Chairman of the Cambridge branch of the Socialist League. This was dissolved in 1937 following its expulsion from Labour Party for launching a 'Unity Manifesto' with the independent Labour and Communist parties. In the 1930s Needham was also an active member of the Cambridge Scientists Anti-War Group, which campaigned against militarism and played an important part in securing better air raid precautions by illustrating the inadequacies of government preparations. From 1937 to 1939 Needham served as Treasurer of the Cornford-Maclaurin Memorial Committee. This was established 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, Needham participated in discussions among Communist Party members and others on the Left as to whether they should support the British war effort. After the German attack on the USSR in 1941 Needham was active in promoting Anglo-Soviet friendship until his departure for China.


After the war Needham supported peace and disarmament campaigns. 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 led to intense criticism of Needham in the UK. Needham 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. Needham 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. In later years Needham was 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 to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1941 and in 1971 elected a Fellow of the British Academy, thus becoming one of very few to attain this double distinction. In 1992 he was appointed a Companion of Honour. He also held many honorary Chairs, fellowships and doctorates worldwide. Needham died in 1995, outliving both Dorothy Needham, who died in 1987, and his second wife Lu Gwei-Djen, whom he had married in 1989 but who died in 1991.

  • Biochemistry
Creator Names:
  • Needham, Joseph, 1900-1995, scientist and biochemist
Immediate Source Of Acquisition:
  • The papers were received in September 1992 from Cambridge University Library.

Conditions of access:











Compiled by Timothy E. Powell and Peter Harper


The work of the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists has been made possible by the support of the following societies and organisations:


The Biochemical Society


The British Library


British Petroleum plc


The Geological Society of London


Gonville and Caius College Cambridge


The Institute of Physics


The Royal Society


The Royal Society of Chemistry


The Society of Chemical Industry


The Wellcome Trust

Related Material:
  • 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 are deposited in the Department of Documents, Imperial War Museum, London. They are catalogued as NCUACS 55/4/95.


    The papers and correspondence of Dorothy Needham are deposited in the Library, Girton College, Cambridge. They are catalogued as NCUACS 22/7/90 and NCUACS 37/5/92.

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