An Iconoclastic and Flirtatious Master

I am currently reading Patricia Fara‘s recent book Science: A Four Thousand Year History which cuts an interesting swathe through different cultures, different individuals and different discoveries (sometimes even the same discovery in different places). It is not your average Eurocentric view of progress. Reading the chapter entitled China, she stresses how many of the things that are traditionally claimed as European Renaissance inventions actually have their roots in China well before that time, even if it was the Renaissance that saw their applicability and utility widely developed; examples include gunpowder and printing. This chapter also stresses the key role Joseph Needham played in bringing the importance of such Chinese inventions and knowledge through the centuries to the attention of the West.

Needham was a figure whose name flitted in and out of my teenage years, who was an iconoclastic (and possibly surprising) Master of a Cambridge college when I was a student and whose second marriage in 1989 to a fellow, Lu Gwei-Djen of my own (current) college, I remember well. An intriguing character brought to life in the biography I read last year: The Man who Loved China by Simon Winchester and who formed one of the group of five socialist scientists featured in the 1988 book by Gary Werskey, The Visible College. All these works have contributed to my knowledge of the man.

Needham was a giant. He was unusual and multi-facetted, combining Marxist leanings (without ever joining the Communist party) with a high Christian piety, a very strange – one might almost think incompatible – combination. That he reached the position of head of the college (Gonville and Caius) that had initially treated him as an outcast because of his avowed left-wing views is a remarkable story. He personally changed the way the West viewed Chinese science through his patient scholarship and the initiation of the project which led to the multi-volumed Science and Civilisation in China, even if he died before the ever-expanding project came to completion.  Yet his training was all in science, his election to the Royal Society in 1949 based on his work in embryology and morphogenesis and his education in both the Chinese language and the skills of a historian acquired largely on the job as the book project progressed.

I do not think I should regard him as a good role model as I prepare to be a Master, albeit of a much less traditional college. He made many enemies and some bad decisions of both a political and strategic kind, in China and the UK and he was persona non grata with the Americans for many years. In some ways there are strong similarities between him and Desmond Bernal, a contemporaneous socialist scientist, whose love was for Russia rather than China but who equally committed himself so firmly to the socialist cause that it damaged his credibility (he also features largely in the Wersky book as well as has his own biography told in Andrew Brown’s J.D. Bernal: the Sage of Science).  But Needham’s life story is intriguing, writ larger than life; its impact is still felt.

Both Needham and Bernal were names from my childhood. The latter because his daughter by Margot Heinemann was a schoolfriend of mine from early years; though I have no memory of ever meeting Bernal I was vaguely aware he was a crystallographer without having the slightest idea of what that meant. Needham’s name was in currency because a distant cousin and frequent visitor to my family home was also an ardent Chinese supporter during the 1960s and worked closely with Needham at the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) and travelled to China on one of their early tours, possibly even with Needham. But Needham’s presence was more felt during my student years because he so palpably did not fit the expected mould. The (completely atypical in Cambridge terms) portrait of him in his blue Mao suit dominated the Caius hall, surrounded by dreary, dark portraits of elderly bewigged gentlemen  and dusty clergymen (fellows and benefactors all, no doubt) from which it stood out with its lusty colours. I expect it still does.

His lover of more than 50 years Lu Gwei-Djen was a delightful, friendly and welcoming fellow at Robinson when I first arrived there in 1981. The relationship between her and Needham formed part of a curious ménage-a-trois (not always literally) which Needham’s remarkable wife Dorothy, herself a biochemist and very early female FRS, apparently completely accepted. Beyond these relationships he seems to have been an unapologetic womaniser.  Lu Gwei-Djen was an absolutely crucial partner in the massive book project, the one who first introduced Needham to China and its fascinating culture, past and present. She was also very influential in seeing the establishment of the Joseph Needham Institute (for the study of the history of science technology and medicine) in the grounds of Robinson College. Opened in 1985 it continues to provide a building – in the ‘Chinese style’ – where scholars in the field may study.

Needham himself would have liked to see Caius accept female students during his time as master (1966-76) but failed to persuade sufficient of his colleagues that this was the right way to go. So, while Churchill College and others moved to admit the first women in 1972, Caius persisted in its male tradition. It was no coincidence that a number of the founding fellows at Robinson were ex-Caius, leaving the college in dismay/disgust at the continuing refusal of the college to change its statutes. Robinson on the other hand, was founded as a mixed college, admitting its first students in 1979.

I may not take Needham as my role model as Master, but as a staggering intellect and a brave man who held onto his beliefs however unfashionable they may have been, he is truly remarkable.

[ I would recommend all of the books I mention in this post as good, eye-opening reading. The hardest going for me was the Wersky, probably because I am not sufficiently well-versed in the socialist ambience and language of the 1920’s and 30’s. The biographies of Bernal and Needham were informative and accessible. I am only about a quarter of the way through the Fara, but I am certainly enjoying it so far.]


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