Bomb, Book and Compass, By Simon Winchester

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The Independent Culture

Joseph Needham initiated and wrote much of one of the most impressive scholarly achievements of modern times: the multi-volume Science and Civilisation in China. Earlier, he shone as a biochemist, and helped set up Unesco. He died in 1995, aged 94. But until now, no biography has appeared.

Here, Simon Winchester goes some way toward making amends, taking us through a teasingly eccentric life. Needham cemented his scientific credentials with Chemical Embryology (1931) and Biology and Morphogenesis (1942). But his life changed when Nanjing-born Lu Gwei-djen enrolled at Cambridge as a postgraduate. He became enamoured with her, and her culture. A gifted linguist, he swiftly learned Chinese.

That Needham was already married, to Dorothy Moyle, was no hindrance. Moyle and the college authorities turned a blind eye. Needham and Lu were married after Moyle died in 1987. The marriage was short-lived: when Lu died, Needham the nonagenarian tried but failed to net a third wife.

Needham was a nudist, and campaigned for the relaxation of draconian laws restricting homosexuality. But it wasn't for this that his politics landed him in trouble. Based at Chongqing during the war, he visited beleaguered scholars, collecting rare texts, and made contact with Mao's communists.

In the Korean war, the Communists accused the US of air-dropping animals infected with cholera and plague upon civilians. Invited to lead an "international commission", Needham affirmed the claim. Back home he was branded a traitor. Only when the US deployed chemical weapons in Vietnam was he rehabilitated. Soviet documents revealed there was no substance to the North Korean propaganda.

All this is admirably retold. But Bomb, Book & Compass falls short of the critical biography Needham deserves. Understandably, Winchester baulks at offering an assessment of his early biochemistry; but also disappoints when it comes to Science and Civilisation in China. He tells us about its gestation, but little about its contents. He asks why China's prodigious record of technological discovery dried up around 1500, just as science was beginning to bud in Europe – but has no adequate resolution.

Needham's intellect remains undefined. Equally, some misleading generalisations intrude. Needham, Winchester writes, "worked single-handedly to change the way the people of the West looked on the people of the East". Not only did he assemble a team around him, but so did others: Arthur Waley, for instance, or Lafcadio Hearn.

Justin Wintle is the Editor of 'The Concise New Makers of Modern Culture', published by Routledge in November