Joseph Needham was admitted to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in 1935. He was Fellow in the years 1926-66 and 1976-95, President in 1959-66 and Master in 1966-1976. He was the Sir William Dunn Reader in Biochemistry during the years 1933-66. He was the author of 'Science and Civilisation in China' and the Director of the Needham Research Institute, Cambridge, 1976-90.
In 1937, three Chinese scientists from Nanjing arrived at Cambridge University to carry out research in biochemistry. They worked alongside Dr. Joseph Needham, at the time Dunn Reader in Biochemistry, and a fellow of Gonville and Caius College. Dr. Needham already had very wide interests, having written extensively on the relationship between science, religion and socialism, and making pioneering forays in the young field of the history of science. He knew that China had invented paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass, but, like most in the West, had the impression that China was making very little progress in modern science. However, he was very struck by the excellence of these scientists from China, and determined that he must learn more of China, its culture and language. He took up the study of Chinese, and began enquiring deeper into China's scientific heritage.
In 1943, Dr. Needham was sent to Chongqing by the British Council to establish the Sino-British Scientific Cooperation Bureau, with the primary aim of facilitating the provision of laboratory equipment and scientific journals to Chinese scientists scattered across Western China. He travelled extensively throughout Sichuan, Yunnan, and other provinces of South, Southwest and Northwest China, visiting universities and laboraties, and meeting scientists and other academics. During this time he took every opportunity to discuss the history of Chinese science with the scholars he met, and to collect books and other materials on the subject.
On his return to Britain after World War II, he determined to write a history of Chinese science. The more he learned about the subject, the more he realised the magnitude of the task ahead of him, and so he built up around him a team of collaborators, most notably Wang Ling, Lu Gwei-Djen (one of the biochemists who had come to Cambridge in 1937), and later Ho Peng-Yoke. With the help of these scholars, the Science and Civilisation in China Project, as it came to be known, grew and grew.
The documents in this collection are those amassed by Joseph Needham in the course of his great project. They include 388 files of notes, correspondence and photographs covering every topic of the plan for 'Science and Civilisation in China', as well as many interesting and important files peripheral files relating to the work.