The achievements of Joseph Needham make him a fascinating twentieth century figure. He was a polymath, an eminent biochemist, historian and sinologist, who saw the importance of understanding and connecting the "great forms of human experience; science, philosophy, religion, history and art" His father was a physician, a leading Harley Street consultant who specialized in anaesthetics, and his mother was a pianist and songwriter. He was educated at Oundle and in 1918 went to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, to read for the natural science tripos. As a schoolboy he kept himself busy in vacations by helping in military hospitals where his father was in attendance. One of the effects of this experience was that Joseph did not aspire to become a surgeon, instead he came under the spell of the magical (Sir) Frederick Gowland Hopkins [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.535] and stayed on in the department of biochemistry at Cambridge. In 1924 he completed a triple - his PhD, election as a fellow of Caius College and marriage to Dorothy Mary Moyle. She went on to become one of the most distinguished biochemists of her generation and they were both elected as fellows of the Royal Society, in 1941 and 1948 respectively.
Influenced by his father, Needham had a lifelong interest in religion and its relationship to science. He was active in the Guild of St Luke, an Anglican society for medical students. "As secretary of the Cambridge Chapter", Needham noted, "I was able to invite scholars of all kinds to come and talk to us, and I think this was really important because it was through such meetings that I began first to understand what excitement humanistic scholarship could have, as well as scientific investigation….This was really a revelation for a young man who was supposed to be doing science and medicine. It gave me inspiration which lasted the rest of my life". Indeed, this started Needham on his first major literary venture, when he persuaded controversial contemporary figures such as the theologian W R Inge, the astronomer A S Eddington and the anthropologist B Malinowski, to join him in contributing to the volume of essays Science, religion and reality, edited by him and published in 1925 (London, Sheldon Press).
In 1933 Needham was appointed to the Sir William Dunn readership in biochemistry. He retired from the readership in 1966 when he became master of Gonville and Caius College, a post he held for ten years.
Maturing into a dedicated practitioner of physical biochemistry, he made the fields of embryology and morphogenesis his own. For Needham the problem of biological organization was fundamental and he believed that it was within the possibilities of experimental science to take up questions regarding the underlying chemical organization of biological forms. In Order and life (Cambridge University Press, 1936), a book published on the basis of his Terry lectures at Yale University, Needham discussed and developed the conception of co-ordinative biochemistry, by which he meant "the extension of morphology into biochemistry and the bridging of the gulf between the so-called sciences of matter and the so-called sciences of form." The origins of this approach may be traced to notions first advanced in 1930 by (Sir) Rudolph Peters [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.460], professor of biochemistry at Oxford and formerly Needham’s director of studies and supervisor at Caius College.
Needham found evidence for the thesis that morphological patterns were chemically conditioned in diverse results and fields, such as changes in respiration upon cytolysis, relations between cellular structure and oxidations mechanism, the co-ordination of enzyme systems in muscular work and elsewhere. Above all, he showed a remarkable grasp of new knowledge of properties of large molecules derived from centrifugation, flow birefringence and X-ray studies of complex substances of biological origin. In the latter field initial advances came from the investigations of J D Bernal and W T Astbury. It was Astbury’s work on textile fibres which led Needham to the aphorism that "biology is largely the study of fibres". The notion that proteins are crystalline fibres provided the basis for Needham’s picturing of cell-structure as a web-like cytoskeleton, composed of chain-like molecules continuously built up and broken down. To understand the place of the concept of the cytoskeleton in the history of ideas on the chemical organization of living matter, it is important to see that it was formulated by a biochemist concerned, above all, with the problem of organization.
To do justice to the problems Needham was wrestling with we need to view his scientific pursuits in a wider social context. Needham was involved in the General Strike of 1926. He later recalled: "I was on the wrong side, and helped in the running of the railway as a volunteer, explaining my action to socialist friends as a straightforward support of constitutionally elected government, a government which I had certainly voted against in the preceding elections. I so far acted up to my beliefs in this way that at the conclusion of the strike, when the railway company wanted us to remain at our posts in order that their officials could conduct a victimization process against the returning railwaymen, I spoke against this at a meeting of the volunteers, pointing out that we had no quarrel with the railwaymen, and so helped to ensure that most of the volunteers left without delay. There can be no doubt that these events supplied the most powerful stimulus I ever had towards reading along sociological and political lines". In effect, since his cathartic experience of the General Strike, Needham developed his approach of understanding science, religion, history and philosophy as an interconnected whole. This involved him in the study of Marxism, coupling it with ideas he had gleaned from writings on evolutionary naturalism, emergent evolutionism, holism, temporal realism and organic mechanism. As a result, by the early 1940s, Needham was convinced that for the understanding of natural as well as social phenomena it was essential to regard nature and society as consisting of a series of dialectically connected levels of organization: "We cannot consider nature otherwise than a series of levels of organization, a series of dialectical syntheses…Nothing but energy (as we now call matter and motion) and the levels of organization (or the stabilized dialectical syntheses) at different levels have been required for the building of our world. The consequences of this point of view are boundless. Social evolution is continuous with biological evolution, and the higher stages of social organization, embodied in advanced ethics and in socialism, are not a pious hope based on optimistic ideas about human nature, but a necessary consequence of all foregoing evolution. We are in the midst of the dialectical process, which is not likely to stop at the bidding of those who sit, like Canute, with their feet in the water forbidding the flood of the tide."
From this point of view the cytoskeleton embodied one of the transitional levels of protoplasmic organization, the study of which could help to illuminate the relation between morphology and biochemistry. All the same, plausible and attractive direct evidence for the existence of the cytoskeleton was hard to come by. Needham admitted this in the Terry lectures and also later in Biochemistry and morphogenesis (Cambridge University Press, 1942), which included an extended version of the material and argument presented in Order and life.
Biochemistry and morphogenesis was practically Needham’s last major contribution to biochemistry. By the time it was published he had decided to produce a work on the history of science and technology in China. Needham’s abiding interest in reductionism in biology played a part in his decision to occupy himself with Chinese thinking. His understanding of reductionism eventually led him to pay attention to what he regarded as its traditionally anti-mechanical and organic philosophical features, including Taoism, "mystical but in no way anti-scientific or anti-technological".
Without an understanding of the social, political and intellectual background to his beliefs it is difficult to comprehend the fundamental historical problem he raised and the answer he tried to give to the grand question’ - why the scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries occurred in Europe and not in China, in spite of the fact that "between the 1st and 15th century Chinese civilization was much more efficient than the Occidental in applying human knowledge to practical human needs". Needham became interested in the history of Chinese civilization when in the 1930s three Chinese biochemists began to work in the laboratories of the department of biochemistry. Among them was Gwei-Djen Lu, since 1957 Needham’s closest collaborator, whom he married two years after the death of Dorothy. Gwei-Djen used to characterize her role as "the arch which sustains the bridge" which "Joseph has built…between our civilizations".
Drawing on the help of many specialists, Joseph Needham wrote more than twelve of the seventeen books published so far. Originally Science and civilization in China (Cambridge University Press, 1954), was planned to appear in seven complete volumes. Starting with volume four they were eventually subdivided and produced in separate parts in response to criticism that volume three was too heavy and bulky. No wonder that the whole enterprise has been described as the greatest work of scholarship by one person since Aristotle. This should not obscure the fact that initially many historians of science and technology and sinologists in the West were sceptical about the scholarship of a biochemist who had turned into an historian and sinologist. For one thing Needham’s encyclopedic and sinological expertise was distrusted. And when volume one appeared internalism was still dominant, effectively marginalizing the role of social conditions on the historical development of science and technology. This certainly ran counter to the position Needham had taken up. Very briefly and inadequately Needham’s argument may be summarized as follows; it was the stability of the Chinese bureaucratic feudal system, originally the basis of its distinctive strength, that became the source of its characteristic weakness. The non-development of capitalism within its framework was accompanied by the failure of the growth of science and technology witnessed in Europe since the Renaissance. Needless to say this perspective has continued to be regarded as profoundly controversial, but even those who are highly critical of Needham’s approach admit that his challenging ‘grand question’ changed the nature of the debate in this area.
[The Daily Telegraph, 27 Mar 1995; The Independent, 27 Mar 1995; The Times, 27 Mar 1995]