Joseph Needham opened the way, in the West, to academic recognition of the scientific past of China with his encyclopedia Science and Civilisation in China (1954-95). This huge masterwork exposes the historical development of Chinese science in a more complete and detailed way than ever before in any Western language.
Joseph Needham was born on 09 December 1900. He was the single child of a middle-class family of Scottish ascent living in London. He led a solitary childhood in a family permanently besieged by conflicts between the parents.
Joseph Needham started studying chemistry at Cambridge University (England), although being more interested in biology. He had his bachelor degree in June 1921, his master's degree in January 1925 and his PhD in October 1925.
After graduating, Needham entered the laboratory of biochemistry of Cambridge in 1918, joining the "Gonville and Caius College". For the following twenty years, his research interests would focus on embryology and morphogenesis. In 1924,
he was nominated research fellow. In 1966, he became master of the Caius College. He kept this title until 1976.
For a while, Needham was a member of a Christian Brotherhood between 1922 and 1924. He quit in order to marry, in September 1924, Dorothy Moyle (1896-1987), a fellow researcher in the Cambridge biochemistry department.
His interest for Chinese culture was initiated in 1937, at age 37, by an encounter with three visiting Chinese scientists at Cambridge. This time was a turning point in Needham's life. In their conversations with him, the invited scientists wondered how it was that China, although quite good in the past in scientific matters, had been so much overshot by the West during the last centuries. This would become Joseph Needham's Grand Question. Gradually, Needham fell in love with China. He read about Chinese culture and philosophy. He learnt written and spoken Chinese, from 1938 onward. By about 1939, he had conceived the project with his Chinese friends to write a large compendium of the history of Chinese science, technology and medicine.
During World War II, Britain came to see China, which was being slowly invaded by Japan, as an ally against the Axis powers. Joseph Needham succeeded in being sent to China by the government. In 1942, he landed in Sechuan with the objective to establish contact with local scientists and to provide them with advice and material. His Sino-British Science Co-operation Office was based in Chongqing (Sechuan).
To his delight, Needham could stay in China for three years [This is one more example of the benefit of war for whipping up the circulation of ideas and people, and for beefing up governmental science budgets]. Needham took advantage of this stay to travel all around unoccupied China. He learnt about Chinese culture and scientific history. It became clear to him that movable type printing, the magnetic compass and gunpowder weapons had been invented there before appearing in Europe. He published with his wife a first book about these topics in 1945, entitled Chinese Science. During this stay, he met the historian Wang Ling, who was to become one of his closest collaborators on the SCC project.
In 1946, Joseph Needham became, upon an invitation by an old friend, the first head of the science division at the newly-founded UNESCO, in Paris (France). In 1948, Needham returned to Cambridge. From then on, he devoted his whole energy to the history of Chinese science, although he still had to teach
In 1952-53, during the Korean War, Needham supported unfounded Chinese and Korean communist claims that the Americans had used biological weapons in the Korean war.
Needham started his big project Science and Civilisation in China in 1954. Lu Gwei-Djen, one of the visiting scientists at Cambridge in the 30s, joined him in 1957 and became his closest collaborator. Needham was freed of his obligations to teach biochemistry in 1966, when he became master of Caius College.
Needham received numerous distinctions, among which the Award of the George Sarton Medal of the History of Science Society in 1968, and the Award of the Bernal Prize of the Society for the Social Studies of Science in 1984.
In his old age, Needham suffered increasingly from Parkinson's disease. He died at his home in Cambridge on 24 March 1995, at the respectable age of 94.
A longer biography of Joseph Needham.
Works related to the Grand Question:
(1) 1954 until 1995: Science
and Civilisation in China, Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge, UK.
(2) 1969: The Grand Titration, Science and Society in East and West, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London, UK.
(3) 1982: Science in Traditional China, September 1982.
A few interesting sites to visit:
Joseph Needham's post-mortem
homepage at Cambridge University.
Needham archives at Cambridge University.
And of course the
Needham Research Institute at Cambridge.
in memoriam biography
by E. Zurcher on the site of the International Institute for
Asian Studies (IIAS) in Leiden (Netherlands).
A 1993 biography
of J.Needham, by Maurice Cowling, published in
"The New Criterion" Vol. 11, No. 6, Feb 1993
My personal and subjective view of Needham's contribution
to the Grand Issue
The extraordinary exploration and research work realized by Joseph Needham
made of him the XXth century's greatest expert on Chinese science history.
This put him into an outstanding position to crack the historical dynamics
of science. His reflective work, however, is found wanting. Joseph Needham
in fact did not devote much time to answer the Grand Question, the question
he had himself helped name. He was absorbed by his ground research, bringing
Chinese science history to light, but also he oscillated all his life between
honestly searching for explanations and negating the Grand Issue altogether.
He steadily balanced between wishing to explain the advance taken by the West
in the last centuries and pretending it had never existed, i.e. that China
had always been behind most scientific inventions.
How can one explain this self-contradicting behaviour? Several hypotheses come
to mind. It might be that Needham, discovering how good the ancient Chinese
had been in all domains of science, could less and less tolerate the idea
that they were so much overshot in modern times. He could neither accept it
(it was a pity!) nor grasp it (it was utterly contradictory). Thus he was driven
towards denying the present backwardness of China, an escape out of an unbearable
However, reading his papers of the 50s and early 60s, one discovers with
amazement that Joseph Needham had already all the tools in his hands to find
the Grand Answer back then (more precisely, the explanation I introduce in
The Secret of the West
A general theory of scientific progress).
He noticed the failure of the merchant class to rise to power in China. He
guessed that this must have been one of the root causes of the long-term failure of Chinese science. Similarly, he briefly wrote that the states-system dynamics had been helpful to Western European science. However, amazingly, he did not advance an inch further during the following decades.
Instead, he got deeper and deeper into negationism: pretending that a great deal of all Western science was of Chinese origin, and almost negating the gap West-Rest after the Middle Ages.
Why did Needham not exploit his initial breakthroughs and push further his investigations? It could be that externalist explanations were too far-flung with respect to his cultural background. A bit like Einstein refusing to admit the consequence of his newly found equations (the expansion of universe) and biaising them with the cosmological constant. Joseph Needham's long and repeated wading into the religious hypothesis would confirm the weight in his mind of old-fashioned thinking.
Another possibility would be that, like many foreign civilization scholars, he fell in love with his subject and simply refused to admit any inferiority whatsoever of the Chinese at any time. Lu Gwei-Djen was interested in burnishing Chinese history much more than dissecting its defaults. This was perhaps the reason why Needham moved away from his Grand Question towards a Grand Denial, becoming a precursor of political correctness... This self-blinding hypotheses is borne out by the choice to put the volume of SCC devoted to geographical and social factors (of the backwardness of China) at the end.
Needham's succession, unfortunately, is a desert. The present director of the Needham Research Institute, Christopher Cullen, is a mere specialist of a few subdomains in the history of Chinese science. The breathtaking width and depth of Needham's mind is lost.