Joseph Needham

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Joseph Needham, 1965

Noël Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham (born December 9, 1900 in London , † March 24, 1995 in Cambridge ) was a British sinologist and worked as a biochemist in the field of Chinese history of science .

Biography and meaning

Needham was the only son of Joseph Needham, a Scottish doctor, and Alicia Adélaide Needham , a Franco-Irish composer. He graduated from the Oundle School in Oundle and studied at Cambridge University , where he received his bachelor's degree in 1921 and his doctorate in 1925. He then worked as a biochemist in the laboratory of Frederick Gowland Hopkins at Gonville and Caius College , Cambridge, mainly on embryology and morphogenesis . In 1936 he had contact with three Chinese visiting scientists in his laboratory. A student, Lu Gwei-djen (Lu Guizhen, 1904–1991), daughter of a pharmacist in Nanking, with whom he had an affair and whom he married in 1989 two years after the death of his first wife Dorothy Moyle, taught him and brought him Chinese writing gave him the idea of ​​going to China .

He spent the years 1943 to 1946 as a scientist in Chongqing , where he led a project for Sino-British scientific exchange on behalf of the Royal Society. Needham made contact with Chinese scholars and artists and traveled through China. He found indications that a number of technological advances, such as letterpress printing , the compass , gunpowder , suspension bridges and toilet paper , were known in China long before they were widespread in the West. His first book was published in 1945: Chinese Science . In 1954 he published the first volume of his multi-volume work Science and Civilization in China , a standard work in the field of Chinese history of science , which is, however, not without controversy. In particular, he was criticized for exaggerating the importance of Chinese inventions. The work was continued by co-authors even after his death. For this work he used a specially created transcription system , a modified Wade-Giles transcription , which u. a. avoids the excessive use of apostrophes in aspirated initials by replacing the apostrophe with the letter h . Needham blamed the influences of Confucianism and Daoism for the question of why the West, despite the earlier high level of Chinese science, overtook it in the end ( Needham's Grand Question ) .

In 1946 he headed the natural sciences department at UNESCO in Paris and returned to Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge in 1948 , where he mainly devoted himself to Chinese history of science, but also taught biochemistry until 1966. In 1966 he received a Masters degree from Caius and Gonville College. In 1990 he retired. Since 1982 he suffered from Parkinson's disease .

As a result of the Korean War , in 1952/53 he was in front of an international commission that determined US war crimes related to the use of biological warfare agents in North Korea. According to his biographer Simon Winchester, however, he was a naive admirer of communism , who was duped by the North Koreans in this context. Needham's participation in this commission also resulted in his being "blacklisted" in the US until the 1970s. In 1965, together with the former diplomat Derek Bryan, he founded the Society for English-Chinese Understanding, which for many years had to pass visa applications from British people who wanted to visit China.


In addition to its original name, it also had a Chinese nickname. For many sinologists and in China itself he is mainly known as Li Yuese ( Chinese  李約瑟  /  李约瑟 , Pinyin Lǐ Yuēsè , Jyutping Lei 5 Joek 3 sat 1 ).

honors and awards

In 1968 Needham was awarded the George Sarton Medal , the most prestigious award for the history of science from the History of Science Society (HSS). In the same year he also received the Leonardo da Vinci Medal , the most important prize for the history of technology from the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT). He was also awarded the JD Bernal Award in 1984 . In 1979 he received the Dexter Award for chemical history. In 1941 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society and in 1971 of the British Academy , in 1972 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences , and in 1978 to the National Academy of Sciences . In 1992 he received the Companionship of Honor from the Queen . In Cambridge, a "Joseph Needham Professorship of Chinese history, science and civilization" and the Needham Research Institute , which opened in 1985 on the grounds of Robinson College, are named after him.


English language editions of Science and Civilization in China

The series is continued by the Needham Research Institute and has been published by Cambridge University Press.

  • Volume 1: Introductory Orientations (with his research assistant Wang Ling), 1954
  • Volume 2: History of Scientific Thought , 1956 (with Wang Ling)
  • Volume 3: Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and Earth , 1959 (with Wang Ling)
  • Volume 4:
    • Part 1 Physics (with Kenneth Girdwood Robinson , Wang Ling), 1962
    • Part 2 Mechanical Engineering , 1965 (with Wang Ling)
    • Part 3 Civil Engineering and Nautics (with Wang Ling, Lu Gwei-djen) 1971
  • Volume 5 Chemistry and Chemical Technology :
    • Part 1 Paper and Printing (with Tsie Tsuen-Hsuin) 1985
    • Part 2 Magisteries of Gold and Immortality (with Lu Gwei-djen) 1974
    • Part 3 Historical Survey, from Cinnabar Elixirs to Synthetic Insulin (with Ho Ping-Yu, Lu Gwei-djen) 1976
    • Part 4 Apparatus and Theory (with Lu Gwei-djen and Nathan Sivin) 1980
    • Part 5 Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Physiological Alchemy (with Lu Gwei-djen) 1983
    • Part 6 Military Technology: Missiles and Sieges (with Robin DS Yates, Krzysztof Gawlikowski, Edward McEwen, Wang Ling) 1994
    • Part 7 The Gunpowder Epic (with Ho Ping-Yu, Lu Gwei-Djen, Wang Ling) 1987
    • Part 8 - [?]
    • Part 9 Textile Technology: Spinning and Reeling (with Dieter Kuhn ) 1988
    • Part 10 - [?]
    • Part 11 Ferrous Metallurgy (with Donald B. Wagner), 2008
    • Part 12 Ceramic Technology (with Rose Kerr, Nigel Wood, Tsa'i Mei-fen, Zhang Fukang), 2004
    • Part 13 Mining (with Peter Golas) 1999
  • Volume 6 Biology and Biological Technology :
    • Part 1 Botany (with Lu Gwei-djen, Huang Hsing-Tsung) 1986
    • Part 2 Agriculture (with Francesca Bray) 1984
    • Part 3 Agroindustries and Forestry (Christian A. Daniels, Nicholas K. Menzies) 1996
    • Part 4 Traditional Botany: an ethnobotanical approach (Georges Métailie) 2015
    • Part 5 Fermentation and Food Science (Huang Hsing-Tsung) 2000
    • Part 6 Medicine 2000 (Lu Gwei-djen, Nathan Sivin) 2000
  • Volume 7: Social Background :
    • Part 1 Language and Logic in Traditional China ( Christoph Harbsmeier ), 1998
    • Part 2 General Conclusions and Reflections (Kenneth Girdwood Robinson, Ray Huang), 2000

A shorter version was published by Colin Ronan in five volumes from 1980 to 1995 (The Shorter Science and Civilization: An abridgement of Joseph Needham's original text).

German-language editions

  • China's importance for the future of the western world . German China Society, Cologne 1977.
  • Science and civilization in China . Part 1. Translator: Rainer Herbster. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 1984, ISBN 3-518-57692-5 ; Suhrkamp-Taschenbuch Wissenschaft 754, 1988. ISBN 3-518-28354-5 .
  • Scientific universalism. About the importance and particularity of Chinese science. Ed., Translator: Tilman Spengler. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 1993; Suhrkamp-Taschenbuch Wissenschaft 264, ISBN 3-518-27864-9 .

Other works

  • with L. Wang, Derek de Solla Price: Heavenly Clockwork. The great astronomical clocks of medieval China, Cambridge University Press 1960


  • Gregory Blue: Joseph Needham - A Publication History. In: Chinese Science, No. 14, 1997, pp. 90-132
  • Maurice Goldsmith: Joseph Needham: 20th century Renaissance man . Unesco Publications, Paris 1995, ISBN 92-3-103192-9
  • Sushil Kumar Mukherjee (Ed.): The life and works of Joseph Needham . Asiatic Society, Calcutta 1997, ISBN
  • S. Irfan Habib, Dhruv Raina (Ed.): Situating the history of science: dialogues with Joseph Needham . Oxford University Press, New Delhi 2001, ISBN 0-19-564639-8
  • Simon Winchester: Bomb, book and compass: Joseph Needham and the great secrets of China . Viking, London 2008, ISBN 978-0-670-91378-7
  • Simon Winchester: The Man Who Loved China. How an eccentric Englishman redefined our image of the Middle Kingdom. Albrecht Knaus, Munich 2009, ISBN 978-3-8135-0287-9 .

See also

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Robert Finlay China, the West, and World History in Joseph Needham's Science and Civilization in China, Journal of World History, Vol. 11, 2000, pp. 265-303
  2. All information according to Weltwoche No. 31/06 - "The devil wore smock"
  3. ^ Winchester The Man Who Loved China , p. 212.
  4. ^ Society for the History of Technology ( Memento of the original of July 18, 2011 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. The Leonardo da Vinci Medal, description and list of the winners  @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /