Image of Photo of John Moffett and photo of Joseph & Dorothy Moyle Needham, and other friends (R)
(R) photo courtesy of Needham Research Institute: Joseph Needham, Dorothy Moyle Needham and friends at the celebration of the 15th anniversary of the founding of the PRC on Tiananmen on 1st October 1964

Joseph and Dorothy Needham's engagement with China: newly available on-line resources

The China Forum lecture on Thursday 18 May 2023 was delivered by John Moffett (Librarian, East Asian History of Science Library, Needham Research Institute).

John Moffett’s lecture focused on the newly available on-line resources in the Cambridge University Digital Library relating to Joseph and Dorothy Needham’s engagement with China between 1940s and 1970s. The new on-line resources will serve to encourage research on Joseph and Dorothy Needham, as well as shedding new light on the historical context of their time.

John Moffett began by introducing some important discoveries: Dr Joseph Needham’s handwritten travel itinerary in 1942, which took place under tense wartime conditions in China; his cautious engagement with the Communist Party of China; his key role in scientific diplomacy between China and the UK; and the earliest surviving Chinese penicillin, dated 18 August 1945. He then turned to the first batch of newly digitalized material included in the Cambridge Digital Library. It includes Joseph Needham’s return to China in June 1952 upon accepting the invitation to serve the International Scientific Commission for the Investigation of Bacterial Warfare (ISCIBW) in Korea and China. John Moffett discussed the notes that Joseph Needham made during his interviews with imprisoned US airmen in Korea. Joseph Needham devoted great energy to the report, typing the whole of the 655-page report himself. This part of John Moffett’s lecture concluded with a letter to Dorothy in which Joseph Needham claimed that he had done ‘three good things for China’, i.e. the SBSCO (Sino-British Science Co-operation Office), the ISCIBW (International Scientific Commission for the Investigation of Bacterial Warfare in Korea and China) and SCIC (Science and Civilisation in China).

The final part of the lecture focussed on Dr Dorothy Moyle Needham. She was a biochemist, graduating from the University of Cambridge, and a pioneer for gender equality in science. Her assistance to and influence upon Joseph Needham was ‘quite remarkable but largely forgotten’. She travelled to China in 1944 to join her husband and did so again in 1964 and 1972. She was appointed Associate Director of the SBSCO. Her diaries detail her extensive travels in wartime China as well as her regular meetings with senior scientists, diplomats and politicians.

The Q&A session addressed the following issues: the significance of the phrase ‘love – the word that’s never spoken’, which Joseph Needham wrote during his interviews with American airmen in Korea; the practical issues involved in digitalisation of the archives; the relationship between Zhou Enlai, Joseph Needham and Dorothy Moyle Needham; the extent to which Joseph Needham employed self censorship in his diaries; whether a more appropriate title for Simon Winchester’s biography of Joseph Needham, The man who loved China, might have been ‘The man who loves science for the common benefit of all mankind’; the significance of Joseph Needham’s statement that ‘no single man was the father of the steam engine and no single civilisation either’ for understanding current efforts to de-link scientific research in China from scientific research in the West.

John Moffett is a graduate of the Department of Chinese at the University of Edinburgh. He has been Librarian at the East Asian History of Science Library, Needham Research Institute since August 1992.