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CDA President Welzl at Needham Research Institute, University of Cambridge

Vienna/Cambridge, 26 January 2023 – 21:00 CET/ 8:00 pm BST


Upon invitation of University of Cambridge’s Professor Jianjun Mei, director of Needham Research Institute (NRI), CDA President Alexander G. Welzl joined Director Mei for a bilateral meeting at his office in Cambridge together with NRI librarian John Moffett. As a world leading institution in the field of research on the history of science and civilisation in China NRI is an important genius loci for CDA when it comes to cultivating its global community of scholars and experts. Creating robust bonds and bridges between Europe and China calls primarily for a deep understanding of the Chinese history of civilisation and science. This first official visit of CDA to NRI in Cambridge also underlines the notion of a global scientific community being dedicated to evidence-based reasoning with a strong resilience to the external shocks of societal and political turmoil these days. Following its motto ‘Ex sapientia lux’ CDA joins forces with leading academic institutions in Europe (the West) and China to contribute to peaceful and evidence based bridge-building. Nurturing strong collaborations between the East and the West and mutually learning from each other is the only route forward to tackle our common global challenges like climate change, digital transformation, ecological degradation and urbanisation.

From left to right: Jianjun MEI (Director of Needham Research Institute),

monument of Joseph NEEDHAM, Alexander G. WELZL



The bilateral talk between CDA and NRI therefore focused on the question of steps towards a more appreciative, curious and peace-oriented approach of Europe (the West) towards China. Both sides expressed their focus on analysis of the structure, performance and capacities of China’s science and innovation system compared to Europe (the West).


Taking into account the several thousands of years of Chinese history and innovation Needham’s and NRI’s achievements contribute to a comprehensive insight and deep understanding of the historical scientific developments compared to European history. Following this historical framework CDA is dedicated to shed light on the science achievements and innovation dynamics of modern China in the 21st century. After the CDA-NRI bilateral meeting Director Mei and librarian Moffett invited Alexander G. Welzl to join them for the invited talk of He Bian (Princeton University) at Department of History and Philosophy of Science addressing a comparative analysis of the history of medical recipes in China and Europe from the 14th to the 17th century.


Joseph Needham – An Outstanding Biochemist, Historian and Sinologist


Needham Research Institute was built to honour and support the work of Cambridge scholar John Needham who read biochemistry at University of Cambridge and was successively a research fellow, tutor, fellow and finally (1966-76) Master of Gonville and Caius College. In 1936, he and several other Cambridge scientists founded the History of Science Committee. Administered by this intra-faculty committee under the auspices of the Boards of Biology, Physics and Chemistry Joseph Needham and Walter Pagel organised a series of lectures in the history of science inaugurated at University of Cambridge in the same year. Both activities provided a foundation for the novel Department of History and Philosophy of Science celebrating its 50ies anniversary in 2022.


Getting deeply interested in China in the mid 1930ies Needham was later commissioned by the British government to establish a Sino-British Science Co-operation Office in China. During this time he started to study what had been accomplished by the Chinese people in the field of science and technology over their long history. What he began to learn astonished him. It became clear (for instance) that printing, the magnetic compass and gunpowder weapons were all Chinese in origin.


The Needham Question and the Book Series ‘Science and Civilisation in China’


After the end of World War II and having returned to Cambridge Needham set out to answer a question that had been presenting itself to him ever more clearly for some time: why was it that despite the immense achievements of traditional China it had been in Europe and not in China that the scientific and industrial revolutions occurred? He approached Cambridge University Press with a proposal for a one-volume treatment of this subject, which they accepted. But as time went by this plan swelled to seven volumes, the fourth of which had to be split into three parts - and so it went on. Twenty-four parts in all have so far been published, and more are still on the way.


Joseph Needham will be remembered for his massive achievement embodied in the continuing Science and Civilisation in China series, the successive parts of which have been published by Cambridge University Press since 1954. This great work is planned as a history of science, technology and medicine in China, seen in its fullest social and intellectual context, and illuminated by a deep and sympathetic understanding of the cultures of both East and West. Through his writings he has radically changed the ways in which scholars and scientists evaluate both the history of Chinese culture, and the history of science medicine and technology understood as part of the common cultural heritage of the human race. He was undoubtedly the greatest Western sinologist of the 20ies century.


Most of the earlier volumes were written in their entirety by Needham himself, but as time went by he gathered an international team of collaborators, to whom the completion of the project is now entrusted. As the project has broadened, so has the range of questions under investigation. It is now clear that no simple answer to Needham's original question will be possible. The quest has opened out into an investigation of the ways in which scientific and technical activity have been linked with the development of Chinese society over the last four millennia.


The Needham Research Institute, the Library and Novel Questions


The East Asian History of Science Trust (EAHST - subsequently renamed the Needham Research Institute) was set up in England in the early 1960s by a group of Dr. Needham supporters who realised the importance of continuing the monumental Science and Civilisation in China project, preserving his unique library, and finding financial resources to sustain the Needham legacy via the construction of the Needham Research Institute in Cambridge, completed in the 1980s.


To overcome the tax-exemption issues for US benefactors in remitting funds across the Atlantic, a group of close friends and supporters of Joseph Needham in the US founded the The East Asian History of Science Foundation (EAHSF) USA in late 1977, and worked tirelessly to secure funds from major corporations and non-profit foundations, including the Alfred Sloan Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, the Coca-Cola Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Henry Luce Foundation, Kresge Foundation, and Mellon Foundation, among others. Apart from the Kresge Foundation’s matching gift for the construction of the permanent Needham Library, the bulk of the contributions were for the smooth running of the Library. The EAHSF Inc was renamed the Needham Research Institute, USA in the 2000s. Following the establishment of the EAHSF in the US, a Hong Kong branch was similarly established in 1979. In 1995, EAHSF(HK) awarded a graduate fellowship to Jianjun Mei from the People's Republic of China to attend Cambridge University, where he successfully completed his Ph.D. in archaeology in 1999. In the meantime Prof. Mei has been the NRI Director since January 2014.


In the 21st century China’s government and people managed a comprehensive catching-up process and constantly transformed the National Innovation System of PR China. At the time being Chinese science, technology and innovation performance has reached Western levels of output and in several fields China is not only on a par with European or US competitors but has even outpaced their Western sovereign peers. Against this backdrop NRI librarian John Moffett puts the Needham Question in this timely context in an interview in June 2022: “I think the first important thing is that that was a question from 70 years ago. It's a very interesting question and has proven extremely useful up until today (…). But academia has moved on and the ways in which academics view culture and science is radically different from Needham's time. Scholars now are primarily interested in what did science and technology mean – what is science, what is technology, and especially what is the relationship with these objects and these cultural artifacts in each culture around the world. So, scholars of China now will be looking at what was the role of what we think of as technology or science today throughout different periods in different parts of China. Not why did something not happen, but what was happening.


From right to left: John MOFFETT (Librarian of the Needham Research Institute),

Alexander G. WELZL, monument of Joseph NEEDHAM, Jianjun MEI (Director of Needham Research Institute)


Lars Terenius and Joseph Needham – CDA’s Historical Link to NRI


The European Chairman of CDA’s Scientific Advisory Board Lars Y. Terenius – a scholar at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm and former Member of the Nobel Assembly and the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine - personally knew Joseph Needham, invited him as a student to visit Sweden and later on was in close touch with him in the 1970ies and 1980ies. Being a neuroscientist Lars Terenius investigated at that time also the physiological aspects of Chinese accupuncture. In 1982 he published his work on 'Neurochemical Basis of Acupuncture Analgesia' together with his colleague Han Ji Shang from Beijing Medical College. In 1985 and already a professor at Uppsala University Lars gave a talk addressing this topic together with Joseph Needham at Cambridge University. Needham took notes of Lars' talk on the printed program of the event. Upon request to John Moffett, we received the scanned original of this historical document with Joseph Needham's handwritten notes on Lars' talk. Lars Terenius was also one of the first Europeans in the 1970ies who entered and visited China as a scholar in the context of the countries' opening-up.






Lars Terenius talk on acupuncture, Joseph Needham's original handwritten notes 21 Septembe
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