Dorothy M. Needham

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Dorothy Needham

Dorothy Mary Moyle Needham FRS[1] (22 September 1896 – 22 December 1987) was an English biochemist known for her work on the biochemistry of muscle. She was married to biochemist Joseph Needham.


Dorothy Moyle was born in London, to patent clerk John Thomas Moyle and his wife, Ellen Daves.[2] She attended Claremont College, Stockport, an institution run by her aunt, Agnes Daves, and St Hilary's School, Alderley Edge, before entering Girton College at the University of Cambridge. At Girton she became interested in chemistry, and biochemistry in particular after attending the lectures of Frederick Gowland Hopkins. After completing undergraduate studies in 1919, in which she obtained a 3rd Class Honours, she was offered a research position with Hopkins—one of the few scientific leaders at Cambridge at the time who offered research opportunities for women—at the Sir William Dunn Institute of Biochemistry, Cambridge,[2] and she earned a Master of Arts in 1923, and a Ph.D. in 1930.[3]

Moyle married fellow biochemist (Noël) Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham on 13 September 1924. The couple had no children.


Moyle's first major research, in collaboration with Dorothy L. Foster, focused on the interconversion of lactic acid and glycogen in muscle, recapitulating the work of Otto Meyerhof. After that, she studied the roles of succinic acid, fumaric acid, and malic acid in muscle metabolism, as well as the biochemical differences and relationships between aerobic and anaerobic pathways.[4] She subsequently worked on cyclic phosphate transfer in muscle contraction and, with collaborators, established for the first time a direct correlation of structure and function in muscle by confirming in 1939 that myosin, the contractile protein of muscle, behaves as the enzyme ATPase (adenosine triphosphatase).[5]

During World War II, Needham participated in research as a member of the chemical defence group led by Professor Malcolm Dixon for the Ministry of Supply, focussing on the effects of chemical weapons (especially mustard gas) on skin and bone-marrow metabolism.[5]

In 1944, her husband was appointed scientific counsellor at the British embassy in Chungking (Chongqing), China, and Needham accompanied him to China where she was appointed associate director of the Sino-British co-operation office that he established there. They returned to Cambridge in 1945, where she continued research in protein and enzyme biochemistry, and she was awarded the degree of Doctor of Science. In 1948, she was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS), making the Needhams the Royal Society's first married couple.[2]

In 1962, she concluded her four decades of research in muscle biochemistry with a study of the proteins of smooth muscle in the uterus.

Her major work: Machina Carnis: The Biochemistry of Muscular Contraction in its Historical Development [6] which traces all the developments in the field since 1600, was published in 1971 and reissued in paperback in 2009.

She was an honorary fellow of Girton College, Cambridge, a co-founder and fellow of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, and an honorary fellow of Caius College, where she was the first (and for a long time the only) woman fellow.[7]

Political activities[edit]

The Needhams were a socially and politically active couple who shared many causes—for example, both sat on the Cambridge Trade Council as representatives of the Association of Scientific Workers.[citation needed] Dorothy also ran on a Labour Party ticket to the Cambridge Town Council,[when?] and supported numerous organizations, including Amnesty International; Animals' Vigilantes; Anti-Nuclear Campaign; Cambridge Welfare and Preservation Societies; Cambridge University's Newcomers Club; El Salvador Committee for Human Rights; Friends of the Earth; Medical and Scientific Aid for Vietnam, Laos and Kampuchea; Medical and Scientific Committee for Soviet Jewry; and the Movement for the Ordination of Women.[citation needed] She also helped to found two new colleges at Cambridge University for research women who had no college appointments: New Hall in 1946, and Lucy Cavendish College in 1962.[5][dead link]


  1. ^ Mikuláš Teich (2003). "Dorothy Mary Moyle Needham. 22 September 1896 – 22 December 1987". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 49: 351–365. doi:10.1098/rsbm.2003.0020.
  2. ^ a b c Coley, N.G. "Needham [née Moyle], Dorothy Mary (1896–1987), biochemist". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 25 November 2013.
  3. ^ Teich, p. 354
  4. ^ Teich, p. 354-355
  5. ^ a b c Abir-Am, Pnina (2008). "Needham, Dorothy Moyle". Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Vol. 23. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons. Retrieved 25 November 2013.
  6. ^ Needham, Dorothy M. (1971). Machina carnis; the biochemistry of muscular contraction in its historical development. Cambridge, Eng: University Press. ISBN 0-521-07974-8.
  7. ^ "Library and Archive Catalogue". The Royal Society. Retrieved 2010-07-19.

Further reading[edit]

Abir-Am, Pnina G. (1970–80). "Needham, Dorothy Moyle". Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 23. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 231–235. ISBN 978-0-684-10114-9.

External links[edit]