Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham

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Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham (1900-1995) was born in London on 9 December 1900. He was educated at Oundle School, 1914-1918, and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, 1918-1922, where he studied the Natural Sciences Tripos, specialising in physiology, with biochemistry as a subsidiary subject. He proceeded to postgraduate research in the Cambridge Biochemistry Department under Frederick Gowland Hopkins. Needham held a Benn Levy Studentship, 1922-1924, studying the biochemistry of inositol. In 1924 he was elected a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, and in 1928 became University Demonstrator in Biochemistry. In 1933 he succeeded J.B.S. Halbane as Sir William Dunn Reader in Biochemistry. He held the post until 1966, when he became Master of Gonville and Caius College, a position he held until his retirement in 1976.

Needham's early biochemical research focused on embryology, which he described in his book, Chemical embryology (1931). He proceeded to research various aspects of morphology, which culminated in Biochemistry and morphogenesis (1942). Needham produced three other major books on biochemistry, as well as numerous scientific papers. He was also an important figure in the development of biochemistry in Cambridge. He was a founder member of the History of Science Lectures Committee in 1936, which set up a programme of lectures on the history of science, and served on other scientific committees and councils. Needham also wrote many articles on religious, political and philosophical subjects, and gave many lectures on these subjects, as well as on biochemistry.

During the mid 1930s Needham developed an interest in China, and began to study Mandarin Chinese and Chinese history. He volunteered to aid the reconstruction of academic science in the country, and travelled to China in 1942. Under the auspices of the British Council he established the Sino-British Science Cooperation Office (SBSCO), and became its Director. The SBSCO was responsible for assessing the needs of Chinese scientific, technological and medical institutions and researchers, and facilitating the supply of equipment, medicines, books and journals to China. In 1954 Needham produced the first of 16 volumes of Science and civilisation in China, a history of the contribution of China to science and civilisation. In later years the Needham Research Institute was established in Cambridge as a centre for research on Chinese science.

The success of the SBSCO encouraged Needham to argue that the United Nations Educational and Cultural Organisation, which was then under proposal, should include science within its remit. As a result, when Needham left the SBSCO in 1946 he was appointed the first Director of the Section of Natural Sciences of UNESCO, a position he held for two years.

Needham was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1941, and became a Fellow of the British Academy in 1971. In 1992 he was appointed a Companion of Honour.

From the guide to the Joseph Needham: Papers and Correspondence, 1871-1995, (Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives)

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