Needham’s Controversial Life

Joseph Needham (1900-95) was a highly distinguished biochemist, who won almost every distinction around. He got an interest in the history of Chinese science after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 and went on to write (later in collaboration with other experts) the monumental multi-volume “Science and Civilisation in China”. Needham’s father had been active in the Anglican Oxford Movement and Joseph had a life-long interest in comparative religion and philosophy. He combined, unusually, a Marxist perspective (never doctrinaire or formally communist) and support for socialist and reformist movements globally with an ingrained feeling for organic principles and an overarching humanitarian and spiritual human order. His pro-Chinese stand during the Korean war resulted in his demonization in many western circles, the media and especially from the US government. Needham publicised the results of an international scientific commission that concluded that American forces had used biological weapons in Korea. As the Oxford DNB says: “Widely denounced in [the UK] parliament and the press as a traitor and a stooge, he had to weather a furious storm of calls for him to be removed from his academic posts, and he became persona non grata in the US”. Controversy continued for years, but as his great work emerged his reputation improved. He became master of Gonville and Caius Cambridge College (1966-1976), while the US finally relented some years later and granted him a visa. After his death his magnum opus continued at the Needham Research Institute. Although its theories about the reasons for the decline of a once-dominant Chinese science still provoke debate, it is recognised as a great classic.

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