Catalogue description Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Joseph Needham CH FRS (1900-1995), biochemist and historian of science, relating to Chemical and Biological Warfare

This record is held by Imperial War Museum (IWM) Department of Documents

Details of NCUACS 95.10.5
Reference: NCUACS 95.10.5
Title: Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Joseph Needham CH FRS (1900-1995), biochemist and historian of science, relating to Chemical and Biological Warfare

The papers relate to Needham's service as a member of the World Peace Council sponsored 1952 International Scientific Commission investigating 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 (CBW) in general.


In early 1952 the governments of North Korea and the People's Republic of China claimed that the US was dropping infected insects and other material into their territory from the air in an effort to spread disease. Unwilling to accept investigation of these charges by the World Health Organisation or International Red Cross, the North Korean and Chinese authorities invited a commission from the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. This commission reported in March and April that they believed the charges to be true and accused the US of war crimes.


During his period in China as head of the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office, 1942-1946, Needham had been asked to investigate reports that the Japanese were using bacteriological weapons against Chinese civilian targets. He was persuaded by evidence from the Chinese Surgeon-General's office that the Japanese were engaged in bacteriological warfare and submitted a report to this effect. When the allegations of US use of bacteriological agents arose Needham believed that the US military could have been building on the Japanese experience with bacteriological warfare to which they would have had access during the occupation of Japan.


Needham was involved in organising a number of meetings to discuss the allegations and the findings of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers' commission and in April 1952 prepared a set of 'Notes on alleged Bacterial Warfare in Korea' indicating that he found the claims of the North Korean and Chinese authorities plausible. However, the commission's findings were widely regarded as suspect, in part because of the lack of scientific knowledge on the part of its members. The Chinese and North Korean authorities therefore established an International Scientific Commission to add credibility to the investigation of its allegations. Needham was a member of this, receiving a formal invitation to P.R. China from the Academia Sinica.


The Scientific Commission, comprising seven scientists from Europe, USSR and Brazil was led by the Swedish scientist Andrea Andreen. It arrived in P.R. China in late June and continued its work through to September. On his return to Britain Needham held a press conference to report the Commission's findings and shortly thereafter the Commission's report was published. It concluded that the US was waging bacteriological warfare in North Korea and China, albeit not a great scale. The Commission's findings aroused great controversy. Needham spoke at many meetings, some organised by the Britain-China Friendship Association, to defend the Commission's work, and also was involved in a number of exchanges in the press. The controversy was reawakened when the US airmen who had testified to the use of bacteriological weapons withdrew their evidence on their release by North Korea.


In 1956 the editors of China Monthly Review, J.W. Powell, his wife S.C. Powell and J. Schuman were charged in the US with sedition. Amongst the seditious material said to have been published were the findings of the Commission. Needham and other members of the Commission wrote in support of the defendants against whom all charges were finally dropped in 1961.


Needham thereafter maintained an interest in the subject of CBW and from the late-1970s, after the passing of the Freedom of Information Act in the USA, evidence was released appearing to support the findings of the 1952 Commission.


The bulk of the papers relate to the 1952 allegations. There are correspondence and papers relating to the reception of the reports of the commission from the International Federation of Democratic Lawyers', the formation of the International Scientific Commission, and all stages of its work, including copies of evidence placed before the Commission and Needham's notes made during the Commission's enquiries. There is also extensive material relating to the reception of the Commission's Report in the UK and worldwide, including press-cuttings and correspondence with interested parties. Needham spoke at many meetings explaining the work of the Commission and defending its findings and these are documented here. There is also material covering the release of the US airmen and the doubt that their retractions of evidence given to the Scientific Commission seemed to throw on its findings.


The collection also includes correspondence and papers relating to the trial of J.W. Powell and his co-defendants and to Needham's efforts to enlist support for their case in the UK, press-cuttings and other background material on CBW assembled during the 1960s, relating in particular to the conflict in Vietnam, and correspondence from the late 1970s on arising from the renewed historical interest in the possible use of bacteriological weapons by the Japanese in the Second World War and by the US in the Korean War.


Item 113 is an audio recording of Needham's account of his work on the Commission made for the Imperial War Museum in 1987.




The material is arranged as follows:


1-113 International Scientific Commission


1-12 Establishment of Commission


13-54 Commission investigations


55-113 Reception of the Commission report


114-122 Powell-Schuman case


123-153 Later CBW material 1962-1989


123-135 1960s


136-139 1970s


140-153 1980s


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


The Institute of Physics


The Royal Society


The Royal Society of Chemistry


The Society of Chemical Industry


The Wellcome Trust

Date: 1952-1989
Related material:

Books on CBW donated by Needham to the Imperial War Museum are held by the Museum's Department of Printed Books.


The principal collection of the papers and correspondence of Joseph Needham is deposited in Cambridge University Library. It is catalogued as NCUACS no. 54/3/95.


Where appropriate references have been given in the present catalogue to folder numbers of complementary material in the papers deposited in Cambridge.

Held by: Imperial War Museum (IWM) Department of Documents, not available at The National Archives
Language: English

Needham, Joseph, 1900-1995, scientist and biochemist

Physical description: ca 150 items. 5 boxes.
Access conditions:








Immediate source of acquisition:

The material was deposited in the Department of Documents, Imperial War Museum by Joseph Needham in 1992, as a result of arrangements made following an oral history interview in 1987. It was received for cataloguing from the Department of Documents in December 1993.

  • Chemical/biological warfare
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