Joseph Needham’s monumental Science and Civilisation in China, which continues to be published after his death in 1995, runs to twenty-four individual volumes, with more to come. Within a decade of the appearance of the initial volume in 1954, Needham’s name teemed in China bibliographies. His reputation as the scientist-historian who brought to light the immense accomplishments of traditional Chinese technology and science grew steadily. While his name is widely known, however, the strange, often captivating, and at times morally problematic man behind it is not. Simon Winchester has done a signal service in bringing to light Needham’s character and the saga behind his epic scholarship.
Needham was born in London at the dawn of the twentieth century, an only child of Scots lineage. His father was a physician, and his mother was a composer and a music teacher. His school years brought Needham’s immense intellectual prowess to the fore. By the time he was seventeen, he was aware that science was his principal interest, and, thinking to follow his father in the field of medicine, he applied to Cambridge University. He entered Caius College in 1918, and three years later he took his first degree, followed in 1924 by a master’s and a Ph.D.
As Winchester reveals, Needham was notorious for his eccentricities, which included nudism and the practice of Morris dance, a form of English folk dancing. By the 1930’s, he was driving sports cars at breakneck speeds through the English countryside. He liked his morning toast burnt black, and he had a strict rule never to smoke before noon. Thereafter, he smoked constantly, nevertheless living to ninety-four. His politics ran to the far left. In 1917 he welcomed the Bolshevik coup in Russia and maintained far-left views throughout life, devoutly supporting socialism. At the same time, he was decidedly of a religious bent, belonging to a Catholic Brotherhood from 1922 to 1924. He balked at celibacy, however, and dropped out. He was fluent in seven languages, including Polish.
Needham’s initial academic field was chemistry, though his interest in biology was, if anything, greater. Eventually, he combined the two in biochemistry. For more than twenty years, he worked in embryology and morphogenesis, publishing distinguished works. His marriage in 1924 to fellow biochemist Dorothy Moyle was of a piece with his unconventionality. While still engaged, both announced to friends that their union would be of a thoroughly “modern” variety, excluding sexual fidelity. Needham later fulfilled this pronouncement at a key moment in his life.
That moment came in 1937, when several female Chinese scientists visited Cambridge. One of them, also a biochemist and four years his junior, was Lu Gwei-Djen, daughter of a Nanjing pharmacist. Lu, who had come to study with Needham’s wife, attracted his amorous attentions. The two became fast friends, then more than friends, even as Needham carried on as (“modern”) husband. Lu stimulated in Needham a passion for all things Chinese, leading him to prodigious feats of learning in Chinese, both written and oral in Mandarin.
She also presented him with an enigma, known as “the Needham’s Question,” that preoccupied him for the rest of his life. Why, Lu asked, was China so successful in science and technology for so much of its history, only to fall hopelessly behind the West in recent centuries? In 1948 Needham put the question this way: “Why did science [in China] always remain empirical, and restricted to theories of primitive or mediaeval type?” He never found an answer.
Needham’s consuming interest in China led him to plan, with the help of Chinese associates, a history of Chinese science, including medicine and technology. First, however, he had to get there. In late 1939 he and like-minded academics took up China’s cause after Japan decimated more than fifty percent of the nation’s colleges. How, Needham and others asked, could Chinese intellectual life, especially its science, be preserved in the midst of such destruction? Someone needed to travel to China, investigate the situation, and recommend to the British government how to preserve Chinese science. With linguistic ability and keen interest, Needham was a logical choice to lead such an inquiry.
It took eighteen months of persuading the Foreign Office and more months of waiting, but in the end Needham was sent to China’s wartime capital, Chongqing, becoming director of a Sino-British Science Cooperation Office. From this vantage he was to survey the condition of Chinese science and make recommendations to prevent its collapse. Accordingly, early in 1943, he traversed the “air bridge” (provided by American Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers) over the “Hump” from India over the Himalayas, arriving first in Kunming, and then proceeded on to Chongqing in March, 1943.
(The entire section is 2016 words.)