China and the Royal Society: Joseph and Dorothy Needham

Needham - Science and civilisation in China Needham - Science and Civilisation in China

In spite of regular exchanges of information, it was not until the twentieth century that Royal Society interest in Chinese science resulted in a formal relationship between the Society and Chinese scientists. The credit for this is largely due to the efforts of the husband and wife team, Joseph and Dorothy Needham, both of whom were distinguished scientists and FRSs.

In his late thirties, Joseph Needham became deeply interested in those aspects of Chinese civilization that naturally appealed to him as a scientist. He spent the years 1943-6 in China as the director of the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office, set up to encourage industrial and scientific activities in China during the war. He travelled all over China, had close contacts with many leading Chinese intellectuals, and acquired an extensive knowledge of the land and its people.

Officially Needham's affiliation was to the British Council, but there was a great deal of interest from the Royal Society. The President, Sir Henry Dale, wrote to Needham asking him to pass on a letter to a Chinese scientist, Robert Lim. In his letter to Lim, Dale wrote that Needham was planning 'to visit, in the first place, Universities and other centres of research in China, to make a closer and more personal liaison between the scientific and cultural activities of our countries.

Another letter, from the British government, stated that Needham's visit 'offered an unique opportunity for obtaining information on scientific matters which would be of official interest and mutually beneficial both to China and this country.'

English officials were partly concerned about keeping pace with American activities in China, but Needham was preparing for his visit by making Chinese contacts in America. He wrote enthusiastically from New York in December 1942 to say that he had 'purchased tropical kit', and 'a good portable typewriter'. His visit was, of course, taking place during the Second World War, and he was prepared for difficult conditions. Back in London, his supporters had no doubt about his ability to do the job. Dale praised 'his faculty for getting about and making rapid contacts'.

This was exactly what Needham proceeded to do. His reports back to London demonstrate an astonishing schedule of visits to universities, research laboratories, agricultural schools, and other facilities. At one stage, he was barely a day ahead of the advancing Japanese army, and relying on a truck powered by fuel manufactured from linseed oil.

At the same time, Needham was noting the names and details of all the Chinese scientists he met, keeping them neatly in a file of index cards. In 1943 he wrote to Dale with a list of scientists worthy of consideration for Foreign Membership of the Royal Society, foremost amongst whom was his original scientific contact in China, Robert Lim.

None of Needham's suggested scientists were elected to the Society, and the first Chinese Foreign Member of the Royal Society, Shiing-Shen Chern (1911-2004), was not elected until 1985. Nevertheless, the Society remained supportive of the collaborative advancement of science in China. Needham wrote regularly asking for equipment, supplies, and the latest scientific publications to be sent over from Britain. The war made communication difficult though, and after Dorothy Needham joined her husband in June 1944 it became apparent that many letters and scientific books had been lost: 'of 90 letters sent to Dr. Needham since March 3rd, 1943, 41 cannot be traced'.


Joseph Needham's Chinese contacts
Needham recorded the names of his Chinese contacts on index cards, and often included personal information as well as research interests. A typical entry reads: 'Li Yen, ancient old man, chemist at Chungshen Ta Agric[ultural] Coll[ege], pupil of Sir W[illia]m Ramsay at Univ[ersity] Coll[ege] in 1906'. The display includes Needham's card for Robert Lim, whom he proposed as a Foreign Member of the Royal Society, and a typed transcript of the whole collection of cards.

Joseph Needham's spectacles
Spectacles on loan from the Needham Research Institute, Cambridge.

Portrait of Lu Gwei-Djen
Lu Gwei-Djen was one of Joseph Needham's closest collaborators in China, Paris and later in Cambridge. She co-authored books and articles with Needham, and she became Needham's second wife after the death of Dorothy in 1987.
Portrait on loan from the Needham Research Institute, Cambridge.

Moxa rolls
In traditional Chinese medicine, Artemisia moxa (commonly known as mugwort) is ground and burned on a patient's skin. The process is known as moxibustion.
Moxa rolls on loan from the Needham Research Institute, Cambridge.

Joseph Needham, Science and civilisation in China (Cambridge, 1965)
Needham's broad interest in the history of Chinese science finally led him to one question: why, despite the immense knowledge of Chinese scientists, did the scientific and industrial revolutions occur in Europe not China? In attempting to answer this question, Needham wanted to cover all aspects of Chinese science and technology. What started as one book grew to twenty-three, written by Needham and a growing team of collaborators and the work is still ongoing. Other shorter versions of Needham's research have been published separately.

Photo credits:
Joseph and Dorothy Needham ©The Godfrey Argent Studio
Sino-British Science Co-operation Office ©Needham Research Institute