OBITUARY : Joseph Needham

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The Independent Online
When I first met Joseph Needham in 1947 at Unesco in Paris in its early days at the old Hotel Kleber - ex-Gestapo HQ - he was sitting for a portrait drawing by my friend Edmond Kapp, commissioned for the archives with other portraits, of Julian Huxley, the first Director-General, the brilliant Voltaire scholar Theodore Besterman, and other remarkable men gathered together for idealistic reasons but already conditioned by internal power politics in the new organisation, writes Bryan Robertson (further to the obituary by Professor Mansel Davies, 27 March).

Needham was a large and formidable, bespectacled figure in those days, with a briskly imperious manner, tearing along corridors at breakneck speed in a dark suit with his elegantly gowned Chinese assistant padding along beside him like an exotic shadow. Generally brusque, if courteous, and always preoccupied with administrative problems, he also frequently enlivened his talk with humour and flashes of an odd, zany, almost Jewish- American wise-cracking wit.

Later, in the 1949-52 period that I spent running a small gallery in Cambridge, I got to know Needham much better through our mutual friend Elisabeth Vellacott - another artist. One of my most treasured possessions is an inscribed copy of Joseph's book of essays Time, The Healing River, which shows many aspects of his faith, his scepticism, and his very great philosophical stature. He was far less intimidating back in Cambridge, wearing a beret, riding a bike, sometimes reading the lesson at Conrad Noel's famous little church at Thaxted.

Needham always seemed to collapse into a chair like a heavy but playful seal - he disported himself in a chair rather than sat in it, lurching about convulsively, and conducting absurd games of inventing barmy but plausible ancient Chinese maxims. "A room without a wastepaper basket is like a day without sunshine," he would suddenly chant in that odd, light, quick-speaking voice. His serious talk was still full of very funny wisecracks briskly ridiculing officialdom, or pompous or over-ambitious scientists, or the more grotesque news of the day - which only seemed to enter his awareness in passing, like his surroundings or living in Paris. He was intensely preoccupied: his great task of writing and compiling Science and Civilisation in China was under way.

By this time the days when science was pursued for its own sake by dedicated groups of men and women in close touch with their professor were over. Pure science was getting less pure, increasingly subsidised by big business; and the fine days of intimately conducted research among equals were over. Needham was caustic about all this, his idealism was unswerving - and so was his courage, for his preoccupation with Chinese science, history and culture was derided by colleagues. In the eyes of the only too worldly Cambridge scientific establishment in that post-war phase, Needham was a sort of holy fool, wasting valuable time and invoking precious resources in blind pursuit of a self-indulgent folly.

In reality, of course, he was intensely imaginative, like all the greatest artists and scientists. He was able to synthesise and to relate disparate elements to each other, and he could define fresh correspondences in nature and in history. He did indeed have a laconic simplicity of address, but with all his Christian Marxism, Joseph was not a holy fool.

In China, for the past 45 years, he attained the status almost of a deity. And there are moving filmed pictures of the aged Needham being carried aloft in a chair by devoted young scientists and students uphill and across streams in the country, through the usual steamy rains.

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