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Born Rodney Phillip Needham Green, he changed his name in 1947; the following year he married Maud Claudia (Ruth) Brysz. The couple would collaborate on several works, including an English translation of Robert Hertz's Death and the Right Hand.
His fieldwork was with the Penan of Borneo (1951-2) and the Siwang of Malaysia (1953-5). His doctoral thesis on the Penan was accepted in 1953. He was University Lecturer in Social Anthropology, Oxford University, 1956–76; Professor of Social Anthropology, Oxford, 1976–90; Official Fellow, Merton College, Oxford, 1971–75; and Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford, 1976-90.
Together with Edmund Leach and Mary Douglas, Needham brought structuralism from France and anglicised it in the process. A prolific scholar, he was also a teacher and a rediscoverer of neglected figures in the history of his discipline, such as Arnold Van Gennep and Robert Hertz.
Among other things, he contributed to the study of family resemblance, introducing the terms "monothetic" and "polythetic" into anthropology.
He had two children, one of whom, Tristan, became a professor of mathematics.