Founded by the scholar Joseph Needham (1900–1995), the Needham Research Institute provides facilities and research materials for specialists in the history of East Asian, especially Chinese, contributions to science and medicine. Resources include an extensive document library and other materials on East Asian science and culture and a program of seminars by scholars from around the world.

The mission of the Needham Research Institute, founded by scholar Joseph Needham (1900–1995), is to provide scholars with excellent facilities for research into the history of science, technology, and medicine in East Asia, most prominently China. The Institute, which houses the East Asian History of Science Library and is home to the Science and Civilisation in China project, is situated in west Cambridge, England, on the grounds of the University of Cambridge’s Robinson College.


The Institute was founded in 1976 by the Cambridge University biochemist Joseph Needham, who focused his work beginning in 1937 on investigations of the scientific and technical contributions of the Chinese people to human culture. These investigations became the Science and Civilisation in China project, which resulted in the publication of an ongoing series of volumes by Needham and his collaborators covering Chinese accomplishments in science and applied technology throughout history. Joseph Needham assembled a unique collection of Chinese, Japanese, and Western language materials. The collection is the basis of the East Asian History of Science Library. The Institute’s building, completed in 1987, was designed to include references to Chinese architecture as a way to reflect the nature of the work done there. Temple-like columns, octagon-shaped door and window openings, and the use of traditional Chinese colors on the exterior are among such features.

Resources for Scholars

Scholars working in the Institute typically include collaborators on the Science and Civilisation in China project, established academics on sabbatical, doctoral and post-doctoral researchers on one-year fellowships, and other shorter term visitors from around the world. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is one of several organizations who fund fellowships to United States–based East Asia scholars and researchers for study at Needham Research Institute.

Open to all scholars, the library collection contains primary and secondary works in Chinese, English, Korean, Japanese, and other languages on the history of traditional East Asian science, technology, and medicine. The core of the collection includes correspondence, notes, photographs, maps, and other material assembled by Needham and Lu Gwei-Djen as part of their research for the series of publications Science and Civilisation in China. Since the early 1990s, the library has invested in purchases of recent Chinese publications, especially in the areas of the history of Chinese mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and archaeology. The Library also has a modest collection of several hundred traditional Chinese thread-bound books, with some old and rare editions. The library is working to develop its collection of materials on the history of science, technology, and medicine in other parts of East Asia, such as Japan and Korea.

The Institute sponsors a program of seminars held weekly throughout the academic year. Seminar topics for 2009 include, among others, “Peacocks and Poetry: Image and Text in Qing Illusionistic Painting.” and “Agricultural Technologies for the Alleviation of Natural Disasters in Qimin yaoshu” (an early Chinese monograph on agriculture).

Administration and Funding

Responsibility for the management of the Institute rests with the Trustees of the Needham Research Institute, which is a registered charitable trust. Until 2002, the Trust was directed by Professor Ho Peng Yoke, a member of Academia Sinica, who worked without salary to develop the Institute’s international contacts and to investigate fund-raising possibilities. In October 2003, the Institute appointed a full-time salaried Director, Christopher Cullen. Professor Cullen, who originally trained as an engineer, is an Honorary Professor of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and president of the International Society for the History of East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine. The Institute, as an independent foundation, receives no public funds. Its main income comes from its endowment, which is administered by the Trustees of the Needham Research Institute, but it is also active and successful in obtaining funding from foundations, including the East Asian History of Science Trust. A substantial donation from the Chinese Civilisation Educational Trust in Hong Kong funded the new full-time Directorship.

Further Reading

Needham Research Institute. (2009). Retrieved February 10, 2009, from

Ho Peng Yoke. (2005). Reminiscence of a Roving Scholar: Science, Humanities, and Joseph Needham. Hackensack NJ: World Scientific.

Source: The Editors. (2009). Needham Research Institute. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1571–1572. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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