Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham, known as Joseph Needham, was born in London in 1900. He is also known by the Chinese name Li Yuese.
In 1918, Needham left King’s College to begin training for service as surgeon sub-lieutenant, Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. The First World War ended before he was deployed at sea. He then pursued his higher education at Cambridge University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1921, a master’s degree in 1925, and a doctorate later in 1925. From 1924, he was a Fellow at Cambridge and held various appointments in universities in England and in the United States. He worked as a University Demonstrator in Biochemistry at Cambridge from 1928 to 1933, when he was appointed Sir William Dunn Reader in Biochemistry. He held this title until 1966 when he was appointed Master of Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge. During his academic career at Cambridge, he also served as visiting lecturer in England, the United States, and Poland. He retired from the Mastership in 1976.
In 1942, Needham was sent to China as Head of the British Scientific Mission and Counsellor at the British Embassy in Chungking, in charge of a Sino-British Science Co-operation 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” (UK National Archives).
After this experience, Needham is considered to have played an instrumental role in introducing Science into the mandate of UNESCO. His proposal for a scientific programme at UNESCO was presented to the first General Conference in November 1946. Needham served as Senior Counsellor for the Natural Sciences Section of the Preparatory Commission from May 6 - December 6, 1946. He continued, first under the title of Senior Counsellor, then as Head of the Natural Sciences Section in the UNESCO Secretariat from December 6, 1946 to April 20, 1948. On April 6, 1948, he was appointed Honorary Consultant in the Natural Sciences by the Director-General. The Executive Board awarded him the title of Honorary Counsellor to UNESCO on September 16, 1949.
After leaving UNESCO in April 1948, Needham’s work at Cambridge focused on the contribution of China to science and civilization. The question of why historically the scientific and industrial revolutions had occurred in Europe and not China, given its scientific traditions, became known as ‘the Needham Question’ or ‘Needham’s Grand Question.’
Needham died March 24, 1995.
Among his honours, Needham was made a Foreign Member of the Chinese National Academy, the National Academy of Peiping, and the Société philomathique de Paris. The Needham Research Institute for the study of Chinese science was opened at Cambridge in 1985. He also held the following British orders: Fellow, Royal Society (1941); Fellow, British Academy (1971); and, Companionship of Honour (1992).
Among his many publications, Needham is noted for: 'Chemical Embryology' (1931); 'Biochemistry and Morphogenesis' (1942); and, his contributions to 'Science and Civilization in China' series.