Joseph Needham was an embryologist and biochemist who is most noted in science for his studies on induction in developing embryos. Needham worked with Conrad Hal Waddington to attempt to identify the compound responsible for the organizer's activity. Although he was not successful in discovering the chemical, he and Waddington learned much about the organizer. Needham was a meticulous writer, writing reviews and books about contemporary research. In later years, Needham traveled to a newly opened China and studied their history, writing a number of books on Chinese culture, science, and history. Born Noel Joseph Terrence Montgomery Needham on 9 December 1900 in London, his parents were Alicia Adelade Montgomery and Joseph Needham. His parents' relationship ended poorly while he was a child and he was often forced to mediate between them, a skill he utilized in later years. He pursued science and philosophy, subjects that also interested his father.

Research in chemical induction seeks to identify the compound or compounds responsible for differentiation in a developing embryo. Soren Lovtrup compared the search for these compounds to the search for the philosopher's stone. It was based on the assumption that the differentiating agents have to be chemical substances either within cells or in the extracellular matrix. However, despite numerous efforts to understand them, the nature of these substances remained largely a mystery from the 1930s until the 1980s, when the new era of molecular induction based on molecular genetics provided a new perspective. During the period of emphasis on chemical induction, a variety of different experiments were conducted aimed at discovering the chemical nature of the inducer. In some experiments, the organizer region was killed by heat to assess the inducing ability of a dead organizer. Other experiments used natural and synthetic compounds to attempt. Although none of these experiments identified a chemical inducer with any certainty, they did discover many related properties of the developing embryo.

In 1931 embryologist and historian Joseph Needham published a well-received three-volume treatise titled Chemical Embryology. The first four chapters from this work were delivered as lectures on Speculation, Observation, and Experiment, as Illustrated by the History of Embryology at the University of London. The same lectures were later released as a book published in 1934 titled A History of Embryology. This monograph represents one of the first general accounts of the history of embryology and presents embryology as a history of intertwined ideas, a style of historical writing advanced by noted biology historian Jane Oppenheimer. A revised 1959 edition of the text published by Abelard and Schuman, New York, examines the history of embryology from antiquities to the mid-nineteenth century. Arthur Hughes, lecturer in anatomy at Cambridge University, is credited by Needham as providing technical assistance with the new version.

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