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A more detailed biography of Joseph Needham.

Joseph Needham (1900-1995)

Joseph Needham was born on 09 December 1900. He was the single child of a middle-class family of Scottish ascent living in London. The lingering conflict opposing his parents marked Joseph's whole childhood. His father, a doctor, rigorous and rather penny-pinching, could not get to terms with his wife, a music composer, unpredictable and spending with prodigality. Young Joseph avoided to go to the living room not to assist to yet another shouting scene. He had separate holidays with each of his parents.
Joseph led a solitary childhood because his parents unfortunately agreed on one point: snobbishness. They kept all family members, except one, away from their son because they did not consider them of sufficient social standard. The same held for the little friends of Joseph, who were forbidden from the Needham's house one after the other, at the slightest misconduct.

Joseph Needham started studying chemistry at Cambridge University (England), although being more interested in biology. He had his bachelor degree in June 1921, his master's degree in January 1925 and his PhD in October 1925. After graduating, Needham entered the laboratory of biochemistry of Cambridge in 1918, joining the "Gonville and Caius College". For the following twenty years, his research interests would focus on embryology and morphogenesis. In 1924, he was nominated research fellow. In 1966, he became master of the Caius College. He kept this title until 1976.

Needham discovered his leftist inclinations in November 1917. He welcomed the bolchevik coup in Russia, to the horror of his father. He later joined diverse "soft" communist associations. In parallel, he was very early attracted by deep religious issues and esoterism. He was member of a Brotherhood between 1922 and 1924. He quit in order to marry, in September 1924, Dorothy Moyle (1896-1987), a fellow researcher in the Cambridge biochemistry department.

His interest for Chinese culture was initiated in 1937, at age 37, by an encounter with three visiting Chinese scientists at Cambridge. One of them was a 33 year old biochemist from Nanking, Lu Gwei-Djen (1904-1991). The daughter of a pharmacist, she had come to Cambridge as a postgraduate to study under Dorothy Needham, Joseph's wife, who was then 41. She was deeply interested in traditional Chinese science. This time was a turning point in Needham's life. In their conversations, she wondered how it was that China, although quite good in the past in scientific matters, had been so much overshot by the West during the last centuries. This would become Joseph Needham's Grand Question. In the same time, Needham fell in love with China. He read about Chinese culture and philosophy, he started in 1938 to learn Chinese with a Cambridge professor and with Lu Gwei-Djen. By about 1939, he and his Chinese friends had conceived the project to write a large compendium of the history of Chinese science, technology and medicine.

During World War II, Britain came to see China, which was being slowly nibbled by Japan, as an ally against the Axis powers. In 1942, Joseph Needham succeeded in being sent to China by the British government. He had as mission to establish contact with local scientists and to help them with advice and material. His Sino-British Science Co-operation Office was based in Chongqing (Sechuan).

To his delight, Needham could stay in China for three years [One more example of the benefit of war for whipping up the circulation of ideas and people, and to beef up governmental science budgets]. Needham took advantage of this stay to travel all around unoccupied China. He learnt about Chinese culture and scientific history. It became clear to him that movable type printing, the magnetic compass and gunpowder weapons had been invented there before appearing in Europe. He published with his wife a first book in 1945, entitled Chinese Science. During this stay, he met the historian Wang Ling, who was to become one of his closest collaborators on the SCC project. Lu Gwei-Djen had moved to the U.S. during the war. In 1945, she joined the Needhams in Chongqing as a consultant for nutrition at the Co-operation office.

In 1946, Joseph Needham became, upon an invitation by an old friend, the first head of the science division at the newly-founded UNESCO, in Paris (France). In 1948, Lu Gwei-Djen moved to Paris as well to work at Unesco at the secretariat for natural sciences. In the same year, Needham returned to Cambridge. From then on, he devoted his whole energy to the history of Chinese science, although he still had to teach biochemistry.

In 1952-53, during the Korean War, Needham took part in an international delegation of communist-bent scientists who backed the unfunded communist-Chinese allegations that the American army had used biological weapons in the Korean war. Korean civilians had died in droves in an epidemy of cholera, and the Chinese advisers decided U.S. warfare would be a better villain than bad Korean hygiene and natural microbes. This shameful episode had a lasting political effect on Needham's life. The US State Department put him on the black list. He still had difficulties to get tourist visas for the United States in the seventies.

Needham started his big project Science and Civilisation in China in 1954. Lu Gwei-Djen joined him to Cambridge in 1957. She was his closest collaborator ever since. He was freed of his obligations to teach biochemistry in 1966, when he became master of Caius College. He received the Award of the George Sarton Medal of the History of Science Society in 1968, and the Award of the Bernal Prize of the Society for the Social Studies of Science in 1984.

In 1989, two years after his wife's death, Needham married Lu Gwei-Djen. In 1990, he reiterated the accusation of using biological weapons against the American army in a ceremony where he was honored by Beijing on his 90th birthday... In his old age, Needham suffered increasingly from Parkinson's disease. He peacefully died at his home in Cambridge on the evening of 24 March 1995, at the age of 94.