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Personal Papers of Dorothy Needham, 1907 - 1988

Reference Code: GBR/0271/GCPP Needham

Scope and Contents

The papers were originally catalogued by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archive of Contemporary Scientists [NCUACS] in three batches in 1990, 1992 and 1996. The NCUACS catalogues were transferred to Girton's online catalogue in 2012: Girton College reference numbers have been assigned to the collection but NCUACS references have been recorded under Former Reference. Some extra detail has been added and the three catalogues have been condensed into one, but the catalogue retains the broad outline of the NCUACS classification scheme.


  • Creation: 1907 - 1988


Conditions Governing Access

Dorothy Needham's estate passed to her late husband Joseph. It is now held with his by the Needham Research Institute, 8 Sylvester Road, Cambridge CB3 9AF.

Biographical / Historical

Dorothy Mary Moyle was born in London on 22 September 1896. She was educated at Claremont College, Stockport, and St. Hilary’s School, Alderley Edge, before passing the entrance examination to Girton College Cambridge in 1915 to study for the Natural Sciences Tripos. She passed Part I in 1918 and Part II, specialising in Chemistry, in 1919. There followed research on aerobic synthesis of the muscle fuel glycogen for the Food Investigation Board of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, working under F G Hopkins and the Sir William Dunn Institute of Biochemistry, Cambridge. Dorothy Moyle received the ‘title’ of BA and MA in 1923 and of PhD in 1926 (women were not admitted to Cambridge University degrees as such or to membership of the University until 1948). In 1924 Dorothy Moyle married Joseph Needham, a fellow worker in Hopkins’s laboratory. She was awarded a Beit Memorial Fellowship for 1925-28 and during this period she did much collaborative work with her husband as well as pursuing her own lines of research. Dorothy Needham’s most important work was on carbohydrate metabolism in muscle. From 1930 to 1940 she was involved in pioneering work on the part played by ATP (adenosinetriphosphate) in the contraction of muscle. For this and other research she was awarded the Cambridge University ScD (1945) and elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society (1948). In 1940 she joined Dr Malcolm Dixon’s chemical defence research group to work on the effects of chemical weapons (mustard gas in particular) on the metabolism of skin and bone-marrow. This was followed by a period in China, 1944 - 45, where Joseph Needham was Scientific Counsellor at the British Embassy in Chungking (Chongqing). Dorothy Needham was appointed Associate Director of the Sino-British Cooperation Office. After the war Dorothy Needham returned to the Sir William Dunn Institute in Cambridge to take up work on enzyme biochemistry. Despite her great distinction she had never held an established post in the University and was now supported by a short-term Medical Research Council grant, which was renewed twice. In 1952, however, the MRC declined to extend her grant further on the grounds that to do so would run counter to the Council’s policy of not providing long-term funding for personal stipends. The Broodbank Fund of the University awarded Dorothy Needham a grant to run 1952-55 but there were difficulties in securing further funding. An approach to the Royal Society in 1955 was unsuccessful, the President, Lord Adrian, apparently believing that it was unnecessary for married women, FRSs or not, to have salaries (see GCPP Needham 1/2/2 File 3). However, support was forthcoming from the Agricultural Research Council and thereafter she was funded principally by the ARC for research on the proteins of smooth muscle in the uterus. Dorothy Needham retired from active research in 1963 to work on her book 'Machina Carnis: the biochemistry of muscular contraction in its historical development', published by Cambridge University Press in 1971. Following this she began work on a Sourcebook for the history of biochemistry in collaboration with the historian Mikuláš Teich. This was unfinished at her death in 1987. Dorothy Needham was a Fellow of three Cambridge colleges: at Girton, where she had been educated, she became an honorary fellow in 1976; at Lucy Cavendish, which she helped to found in 1965, she was a foundation fellow; and at Gonville and Caius, where Joseph Needham was Master for eleven years (1965 - 1976), she became an honorary fellow in 1979 - the first woman admitted to Caius and, for a long time, the only woman fellow.


31 archive box(es) (31 boxes) : paper

Language of Materials


Other Finding Aids

The original catalogues compiled by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archive of Contemporary Scientists [NCUACS] are available as hard copy documents.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Donated to Girton College in 1989 by Dr Joseph Needham.

Related Materials

The papers of Joseph Needham are held by the Needham Rersearch Institute, reference: NRI2. Further papers of Joseph Needham are held by Gonville and Caius College Archive, reference: JNM.


Needham, Dorothy Mary Moyle, 1896-1987, née Moyle, biochemist

Finding aid date

1998-09-03 13:40:49+00:00

Repository Details

Part of the Girton College Archive Repository

The Archivist
Girton College Archive
Huntingdon Road
Cambridge CB3 0JG United Kingdom
+44 (0)1223 338897