By Erik Zürcher
It is almost impossible to rubricize Joseph Needham, for in most respects he deviated from the common pattern of Oriental scholarship. Perhaps his most striking quality was the combination of human and professional interests that normally are not united in one person. He was a scientist and yet a humanist; while being a convicted Christian, he liked to call himself 'an honourary Taoist'; he was committed to both free though and Marxism. Above all, he was a man with a mission. As an historian of science and technology he wanted to break through the parochial, Europe-centred views of most of his colleagues by disclosing the achievements of traditional China and the important contributions made by China to what eventually would become the scientific revolution. But beyond that he wanted through that insight to contribute to a better, ecumenical world, and at that level those seemingly contradictory ideals -- scientific, humanist, religious, Marxist -- were integrated. They all are combined in the title and subtitle of a text he wrote in 1945: History is on Our Side. Essays in Political Religion and Scientific Faith.
Joseph Needham was born in London in 1900 into a middle-class intellectual family; his
father was a Harley Street specialist and the owner of a fine library with many works on
religion and philosophy; his mother was a gifted musician and composer. Later, when he
studied medicine and biochemistry at Cambridge, he combined this scientific training with
an unflagging interest in religion, philosophy and humanist scholarship. In 1924, he took
his doctorate and became a fellow of Caius College, an institution that (apart from the
years which he spent in China and Paris) was to remain his home-base almost till the end
of his life. He pursued his biochemical research at Professor F.G. Hopkins' laboratory; in
1931 he published his three-volume Chemical Embryology with an extensive
introduction about the history of embryology -- his first contribution to the history of
In 1936 China entered his field of vision, due to the arrival of three young Chinese scientists at Hopkins' laboratory. One of them, Lu Gwei-djen (the daughter of a Chinese pharmacist, and deeply interested in traditional Chinese science) became his assistant and informant ( she taught him, among other things, Classical Chinese), and she remained his closest collaborator ever after. Thus, in his late thirties, Joseph Needham became acquainted with, and deeply interested in those aspects of Chinese civilization that naturally appealed to him as a scientist.
The China years
The decisive phase in his scholarly career covered the years 1942-1946 which he spent in China as the director of the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office, that had been set up to encourage industrial and scientific activities in China during the war. He travelled all over the unoccupied parts of China, had close contacts with many leading Chinese intellectuals, and acquired an extensive and many-sided knowledge of the land and the people. In China he met the gifted historian Wang Ling who also was to become one of his closest collaborators in later years.
After the war the scientist-turned-sinophile spent some years at UNESCO which still was in its formative stage; in fact, it was Needham who with great perseverance (pleading his cause in Washington, Moscow, and elsewhere) persuaded the authorities to include Science in the assignment of the new organization. After having been instrumental in putting Science into UNESCO, it was only fitting that he became the first head of the Science Division. But at the same time he was already busy collecting the materials for, and writing the first volume of his Science and Civilisation in China.
The SCC Project
After having returned to Cambridge he became involved in a political game that at the time earned him much scorn from his colleagues: in 1955 he accepted the invitation to join an International Scientific Commission (set up by the communist-sponsored World Peace Council) to investigate the evidence of bacteriological warfare in Korea, and he co- signed the report of the Commission that confirmed the North Korean and Chinese claims. Whatever the merit of this report, it was a passing incident, and Needham was able to continue his work at Caius, year after year. His huge SCC project turned out volume after volume, the enterprise growing in size and complexity as ever new topics were discovered. Seven volumes had been planned, but SCC IV already had to be split up and published in three large volumes. Working in cramped quarters filled with an ever increasing mass of materials, with Lu Gwei-djen and Wang Ling, and for the later volumes with outstanding specialists, called in from outside, Needham deployed his remarkable talents as a 'science manager', methodically working his way through one of the most complex projects ever undertaken in Chinese studies.
SCC has been universally acclaimed as a work of momentous importance, providing, for the first time, a reliable and detailed inventory of a largely unexplored dimension of Chinese civilization. As a mine of factual information SCC will be of lasting value. On the other hand, from various quarters SCC has been criticized on some fundamental points. In general his dealing with inventions like printing, the magnetic compass and the escape mechanism in clockwork, Needham's extremely diffusionist stand (neglecting the factor of independent invention) has come under fire. Critics have qualified the role played by Taoism, which according to Needham has been the main source of inspiration of Chinese pre-modern science. And, above all, the conceptual structure of the work as a whole has been strongly criticized: by using categories like 'physics' or 'seismology' and by making a sharp distinction between 'real sciences' (like astronomy: to be included) and 'pseudo-sciences (like astrology: to be discarded) the traditional Chinese sciences are taken out of their cultural context, and forced into a modern mould of European origin. However, it is only fair to remark that precisely by being provocative and controversial, Needham's oeuvre has been able to give rise to a fascinating scholarly debate which shows no sign of drying up.
In recent years the SCC project has finally acquired a suitable institutional basis and independent status by the establishment of the Needham Institute at Cambridge. It must have been a source of satisfaction to Joseph Needham that at last facilities were created for carrying on the work and for housing the splendid library; it may also have reconciled him to the prospect that he would not live to see the completion of the work that he started more than forty years ago.
His passing leaves a gap that cannot be filled, for he was a phenomenon that does not repeat itself. The combination of terms that figure in the title of his magnum opus may well serve to characterize the man himself: Joseph Needham was, in the highest and truest sense of the words, a man of Science and a man of Civilisation.