A Forgotten Scholar – Joseph Needham

Joseph Needham (1900-1995) was a world renowned scholar who helped put the history of Chinese science on the map. He is now, sadly, in danger of being forgotten. He was a ground-breaking bio-chemist at Cambridge whose life-long interest in Chinese civilisation resulted in a series of books on Chinese science, which was fostered by a research team at the Needham Research Institute from 1976. He was renowned for conducting informal seminars and get-togethers at his home off Grange Road in Cambridge. I was studying at Cambridge in 1992 and never learnt about these soirees after his death in 1995. They were open to all and I wish I had attended.

Needham has been described as a bridge builder between science, religion and Marxist socialism. He was one of a group of leftist scientists in the UK who wanted to popularise science for the masses, and to reform it away from its elitism. Needham was the son of a Harley Street speciialist and an artistically gifted mother.. His life has been seen as an attempt to bridge the gap between his creative mother and a more rationalist father who nevertheless had a deep interest in theology and the classics and was active in the Anglican Oxford Movement. Joseph himself became attached to a broad and tolerant Christianity, plus a deep interest in religions such as Buddhism, Islam, and Taoism. He had veered towards a religious vocation in his early years, trialling for two years as a novice in the Oratory of the Good Shepherd (an Anglo-Catholic order) and was also active in the Guild of St Luke, promoting Christian ethics in the medical profession.

I will look in future at how these influences turned out in his later efforts to reconcile science and religion, the Holy and Society. I have published my thoughts on Needham in my book Intellectuals and the Decline of Religion (Boolarong Press, 1917).

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