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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2002
  • Online publication date: June 2014

20 - Joseph Needham


After winning acclaim for his monumental work on the history of Chinese science, Joseph Needham was occasionally introduced to fellow scientists who expressed appreciation for what they took to be his father–s pioneering research on chemical embryology. The two women central to his adult life – his first wife Dorothy, and his long¬time collaborator and eventual second wife Lu Gwei-Djen – used to enjoy recalling the surprise on the face of new acquaintances when they realised the biochemist and the sinologist were the same man. Like A.N. Whitehead, whose philosophical views and breadth of outlook he absorbed as a young man, Needham made the history of science his priority only after first gaining a reputation as an innovative scientific researcher. His later orientation was nevertheless solidly grounded in sensibilities he cultivated from youth.

Joseph Needham was born in London in December 1900. Looking back on his life in the 1970s, he accounted for the distinctive features of his character in terms of the influence of his parents. His tendency to embark on expansive projects he saw as reflecting the artistic temperament of his Irish songwriter mother, while his scientific propensities and broad religious interests he ascribed to his English father, a physician of Anglo-Catholic conviction and Gallophile tastes. Like George Bernard Shaw, one of his youthful culture heroes, Needham later explained his creativity, and particularly his abiding desire to build bridges between various areas of interest, as the consequence of a desire to reconcile parents whose personalities and opinions often clashed.