OBITUARY:Joseph Needham

Mansel Davies
Sunday 26 March 1995 23:02 BST

With the death of Joseph Needham the world of learning has lost one of the greatest scholars in this or any country, of this or any century.

For more than 30 years Needham had been the greatest Sinologist in the West, having previously achieved an international status as a research biochemist and as a historian of more than science. Intellectually a bridge- builder between science, religion and Marxist socialism, and supremely so between East and West, he has been called the Erasmus of the 20th century. A sober assessment suggests that, with the passage of time, he will be recognised as a greater figure than the scholar from Rotterdam.

Most great mountain peaks are found close-packed in ranges. Needham matured at Cambridge in the presence of J.J. Thomson, Ernest Rutherford, Arthur Eddington, Edgar Adrian and Charles Sherrington, not to mention some 10 other Nobel laureates from Blackett and Bragg to C.T.R. Wilson. As important influences he himself might well have first mentioned his mentor in biochemistry, (Sir) Frederick Gowland Hopkins, and his polymath physicist friend J.D. Bernal. It was in the Department of Biochemistry, where he was eventually the Sir William Dunn Reader, that he met Dorothy Moyle, herself a distinguished biochemist. They became the first husband-and-wife pair each to be elected Fellows of the Royal Society.

Joseph Needham was the only child of a Harley Street consultant and an artistically gifted mother. At Oundle, in addition to Greek and Latin, which he further cultivated so that he could have taught them at university level, Needham acquired a deep appreciation of Christian teaching and of the Anglican Church. Later he was for two years in the noviciate at the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, an Anglo-Catholic house.

Needham entered Gonville and Caius College intending to qualify in medicine, but the sparkling interests of ``Gowie'' and his colleagues in Biochemistry captured him even from the Church. At Caius he successively became a research fellow, tutor, Fellow, and Master.

Let it be emphasised that the young Needham was no closet scholar unable to sharpen his own pencil. He was a laboratory scientist with a mastery of refined manipulative techniques. During the General Strike of 1926 his practical acumen led him to drive trains at Cambridge. This apparent lack of sympathy for the workers was corrected when he found that striking engine-drivers were to be penalised. He led a walk-out of their volunteer replacements. For several years he actively represented Labour Party interests on local Cambridge councils, and his left-wing sympathies were seen during the Spanish Civil War and in the pre-1939 Cambridge Air Raid Precautions Study Group.

Needham's biochemical researches were centred on one of the most challenging problems in the biological world: how does the single fertilised egg-cell develop the highly specialised limbs, organs, senses, of the newborn offspring? Part of his search was for the chemical agencies promoting specific differentiation in the growing embryo. He acquired an appreciation of subtle physico-chemical factors which appeared to be relevant, and of these he gave the general reader an account via the Silliman Lectures which Yale University published as Order and Life (1936).

Before this he had given a systematic exposition in a three-volume work, Chemical Embryology (1931). It totals approximately a million words. The first 90,000 in Volume I provide a fascinating history of embryological studies from Egyptian times up to the early 19th century. As well as Arabic writings, the sources used by this 30-year-old scholar embraced those in most European languages, including Russian. Ten years later, when he was on the point of leaving this research area, he critically surveyed his own and other contributions of the 20th century in a magisterial volume, Biochemistry and Morphogenesis (1942). This was his fifth at research level in biochemistry.

The lay person could well assume that such volumes are only of interest to the specialist. Not so, when written with Needham's erudition and style. It has been well said that the ordinary reader can admirably extend a good general education by merely reading Needham's intriguing footnotes.

In the mid-1930s three Chinese research students in the Biochemistry Department impressed Needham by exhibiting modes of thought and qualities of mind with which he fully resonated. He took to learning Chinese, with historic consequences. In 1942 he was sent to become Scientific Counsellor to Chiang Kai-shek's government at Chungking. He immersed himself in the historical records of China's science, and he sought out locations where ancient techniques were still to be seen. Then, and on many subsequent return visits to China, he criss-crossed the country repeatedly, searching out original materials, even joining in archaeological activities so that he acquired a unique grasp of the details of age-old technologies. From the outset he had a major preoccupation: why did China, so clearly ahead of Europe up to the 13th-14th centuries, fail to break into the era of modern science? So deeply imbued with the Chinese outlook did he become that he was reluctant to admit the profound role played by Greek logic and Greek mathematics in the emergence of rational European science.

The results of Needham's 50 years of intensive Chinese studies are enshrined in what is perhaps the greatest work of scholarship achieved by one individual since Aristotle. Those who doubt this must find an original achievement greater than the 16 volumes on Science and Civilisation in China. These have appeared regularly since Volume I was published in 1954. Supported by a number of specialist researchers in the literature and fieldwork, Needham himself wrote more than 12 of these, and they were mostly meticulously proof-read by Dorothy Needham. The first 10 volumes alone have text pages, 4,808; illustrations, 1,202; bibliographies, 1,285 pages; indexes (in Chinese and Roman script), 549 pages. Whilst the size of the work is itself remarkable, it is the thoroughness, the depth, and the enlightenment found in these volumes which make them an unsurpassed historiographic treasure of the 20th century. Carefully detailed, systematic accounts and interpretations of Chinese achievements over 25 centuries in mathematics and astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, zoology, botany, hydraulics, metallurgy, maritime science, textiles, hygiene, and medicine are presented.

Only those who have studied the total range of Needham's scholarship are able to conclude that few, possibly no more than two, stand at the same level as scholars, even through this present millennium of European history. Thus, in assessing the volume of Science and Civilisation in China that he published in his 87th year, which dealt with the gunpowder epic, the reviewer in Nature wrote:

No work of scholarship in the 20th century has done so much to alter received ideas about the past as Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China . . . Needham's talents are extraordinary, a combination of linguistic ability - he is completely fluent in eight languages, three of them ancient - chemical, technical and me-

chanical competence, and a cast of

mind that has put endless details together into a clear and convincing picture of a world-wide development that ran across some 1500 years.

The Times Higher Education Supplement has expressed the view that ``no one could dispute that Needham's original concept has developed into the major scholarly work of our time''. Many would add ``or of any other time''.

The subjects of the SCC volumes provide little opportunity for comment on the behaviour and trials of the Chinese people. Even in his numerous essays which themselves comprise almost 20 volumes, Needham presents few clouds on the Chinese scene. He does, of course, accept that what we would call bribery of the representatives of the Son of Heaven was an established practice at all levels: the age-old system would not work without it. On the daily life of the Chinese, Needham is far less instructive (it was never his theme) than the brilliantly realistic Matteo Ricci in his report of 1600-1610.

That an English scholar should be responsible for so enormous an expansion of Chinese cultural horizons would seem worthy of the highest commendation. For 40 years, no British government offered any recognition. On Needham's 80th birthday, celebrated quietly in his college, a delegation of four senior members of Academy Sinica brought their congratulations and acclaim from Peking to Cambridge. He had built a bridge of monumental proportions between the cultural history of one quarter of the human race and the larger world outside Chinese civilisation. Then, in 1992, he was elected a Companion of Honour. When friends qualified their pleasure with the comment that it was belated and inadequate, his response was: ``Well, I suppose it's a failed OM.'' In that respect he outweighed the total of any two in the Order of Merit.

It is a pleasure to note that one major monument to his interests and achievement is to be found in Cambridge. The Needham Research Institute has been constituted and devoted to the study of East Asian History of Science. Since 1987 it has been housed in a notably attractive purpose- built ``East Anglian Asian'' (the architect's description) building adjacent to Robinson College in Sylvester Road. With a brief provided by Needham, the architect Christophe Grillet (another Caius man), produced a masterly creation in the Chinese style, incorporating the finest Western materials. It is reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright's ``Taliesin'', near Madison, Wisconsin. The Needham Institute has won many architectural awards, including a number for the quality of the interior woodwork.

The institute houses numerous treasures from China. The 1,400 separate chapters of an encyclopaedia given to Needham by Dr Lu-Needham Gwei Djen's father are themselves dwarfed by the reprint, bound in 1,500 substantial volumes, of The Complete Collection of the Four Treasures of Literature. This is one of the most monumental of Chinese works. Ordered by Imperial edict in 1773, its contents come under 1,872 titles which are divided into Classics, History, Philosophy and Literature, comprising 79,000 chapters from 3,400 original works. This was the gift of the Commercial Press of Taiwan. Sadly, only relatively minor support for the institute has come from the UK. The cost of the building - the third and last part, the South Wing, cost more than $500,000 - came more particularly from the generosity of Tan Chin Tuan, a Singapore banker, K.P. Tin, a Hong Kong businessman, the Kresge Foundation of the US, and the government of the People's Republic of China.

An essay by Rupert Hall in Notes and Records of the Royal Society in 1990, reviewing Needham's volumes on Science and Civilisation in China, concluded:

Few pages, chosen at random, would not at once identify themselves as the products of Needham's typewriter. He has had (and may have still) many critics, as he well knows; nevertheless he has been the supreme spokesman of the universal "scientific culture" of this century - in the best and widest sense of those words - and contemporaries may well be proud to have lived in an age adorned by a man of such intellectual stature.

Needham's attachment to things and thought Chinese was profound: he confessed that he might be as much a Daoist as an Anglican. He did not readily accept criticism of the Peking government even in the era of the obnoxious cultural revolution. He earlier supported Chinese claims that the US had used biological weapons in Korea: for this conclusion the American Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has recently claimed to have established a sound basis. He generally held views sympathetic to the Soviet government's on many international activities. It was thus he became persona non grata to UK establishment representatives. Given the scale and brilliance of his achievements, such reactions will become even more difficult to accept in the future. He had himself written, ``Loyalty of course is possible anywhere, but its value stands in proportion to the ideals which it serves.''

In March 1990 he wrote:

I was . . . appalled by the "June 4th massacre" at Beijing [Peking], with its later repercussions in the clamp-

down on intellectuals which has followed. I put my name down as supporting various collections for the Chinese students in the early days but have not done so for some time past because we don't want the Institute to be blacklisted . . . It was an extraordinary irony of history that Gorbachev's visit should have coincided with the student occupation of Tiananmen Square. All the extraordinary events in the Eastern European countries during the past winter, and now in the Soviet Union itself, have shown how right the students were in wanting more democracy in China. What will be the end of it I really cannot tell.

Needham was a radical, convinced that Christianity is a revolutionary force. With this conviction and with notable historical care, he published the monograph The Levellers and the English Revolution (1939) under the pseudonym "Henry Holorenshaw".

It was on Needham's return from China in 1945 that Needham's friend (Sir) Julian Huxley, the first Director General of what became Unesco, persuaded him to join in the venture of setting up this United Nations Organisation. Space does not allow the detailing of the evidence that, without Needham's insistence and lobbying, there would have been no appearance of Science in the Unesco title as one of its principal interests.

Needham did more than study history deeply. There are numerous contributions which establish his status as a historian. To mention merely one: his 67-page article on ``The Prenatal History of the Steam- Engine'', which surveys the Chinese, Indian, Greek, Arabic, and early European usages of steam power is a tour de force. It is replete with 35, often detailed, explanatory diagrams, and over 270 footnotes, several of them the length of paragraphs. Other similarly original Needham essays relate to the use of the compass; clocks; metallurgy; astronomical instruments; hydraulics; navigation. It is thus invidious to compare him with the ``notable historians'' whose achievements may amount to rewriting the history of, say, the Tudor period, for a new generation of students.

As an indication of his scope and grasp in this area, a paragraph he wrote on Chinese historiography may be quoted:

The philosophy of history was brilliantly studied in the T'ang period with The Generalities of History of Liu Chih-Chi in AD710 - the first treatise on historiographical method in any language, quite worthy of comparison with the work of the European pioneers Bodin and de la Popolinire, eight and a half centuries later. At that later time China was also to have her Giambattisto Vico in the person of Chang-Hsueh-Cheng. But it was Liu-Chih-Chi's son Liu Chih (fl. c732) and another T'ang scholar, Ta Yu, who invented a new form of encyclopaedic institutional history, the former with his Governmental Institutes, the lat-

ter with the famous Comprehensive

Institutes - a Reservoir of Source Material on Political and Social History, issued in AD801. But the climax to this sort of work was not reached until the Yuan period, when in 1322 The Comprehensive Study of the History of Civilisation by Ma Tuan-Lin saw the light. His lucid and outstanding treatise in 348 chapters, was essentially a general history of institutions . . . it paralleled the sociological history initiated by Ma's near contemporary the great Ibn Khaldun, and the history of institutions later to be achieved by Pasquier, Giannone, and de Montesquieu.

Not untypically, this paragraph carried a richly revealing footnote. Needham referred to the writing of a Professor of Modern History (elected OM) who (quoting the professor) ``wondered whether any non-European civilisation had developed the history of laws and institutions''.

Many essays show his knowledge of early church history, and many published and unpublished sermons, including those delivered as Master of Caius College, are masterly commentaries on the Christian virtues. He could even convey the experience of the transcendent: ``When like Mozart, we see in an instant of time, all the sonatas of the universe circling round the point from which we started, then we may say that we are, though in the midst of time, in our eternal home.''

In this context, many even of his admirers may have felt that Needham, as a rational analytical scientist, an honorary associate of the Rational Press Association, an active socialist and a devout Anglican, was straddling unbridgeable chasms. His volumes of essays, of which there are some 15, offer illuminating insights into the bridges he felt existed. Before he was 30 he explained that words had different meanings in different contexts, that some apparent contradictions were not real, and that the principal concerns of human thought (history, science, art, philosophy and religion) each has its own valid vocabulary which is not necessarily transferable to the others. Wittgenstein's posthumous papers contain essentially the same thesis.

Possessed of a large physical frame and, like many brilliant intellectuals, having a somewhat high-pitched voice, Needham only latterly became a workaholic. As a young man he walked extensively in East Anglia and in hill country around the world: he particularly enjoyed swimming in rivers and lakes, and took a keenly active part in English folk-dancing. Always approachable and friendly, he did not extend his patience to suffering fools gladly.

After a close marriage of 62 years, his wife Dorothy died in December 1987. His principal collaborator in Chinese studies for 50 years had been the indefatigable Lu Gwei-Djen, of whom he wrote as ``the explainer, the antithesis, the manifestation, the assurance of a link no separation can break''. So at the time he moved from his home of 60 years in Grange Road, Cambridge, to a purpose-built bungalow near to his own Needham Research Institute in Sylvester Road, it was no surprise when in September 1989, with a special licence (and a bouquet of flowers) from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Joseph Needham married Lu Gwei-Djen in Caius College Chapel. His was a bride of 85 years. Sadly, Lu-Needham Gwei Djen died in 1991. It was remarkable how Needham's resilience survived even this terrible blow.

In his later years Joseph Needham was greatly incapacitated by arthritis in both hips and by many other inflictions of old age, including partial blindness. In 1991 he returned for two weeks to Portmeirion in North Wales, where he and Dorothy had visited over many years. Out of his wheelchair he was unable to stand unsupported and fell there, gashing his cheek and ear, a matter for seven stitches. Within hours he was insisting "I'm all right". But only above his shoulders did that remain true, even last year, when he still worked (always helped by a reader) on the volumes being written on the history of medicine in China over nearly four millennia.

Mansel Davies

Nol Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham, biochemist, historian, Sinologist: born London 9 December 1900; Fellow, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge 1924-66, Librarian 1959-60, President 1959-66, Master 1966-76; University Demonstrator in Biochemistry, Cambridge University 1928-33, Sir William Dunn Reader in Biochemistry 1933-66; FRS 1941; Head, British Scientific Mission in China and Scientific Counsellor, British Embassy, Chungking 1942-46; Director, Department of Natural Sciences, Unesco 1946-48; FBA 1971; President, International Union of History of Science 1972-75; Director, Needham Research Institute, Cambridge 1976-90 (Emeritus); Honorary Professor, Academy Sinica, Peking 1980-95; Honorary Professor, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences 1983-95; CH 1992; married 1924 Dorothy Moyle (died 1987), 1989 Lu Gwei-Djen (died 1991); died Cambridge 24 March 1995.

Professor Mansel Davies died 11 January 1995

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