Joseph Needham: lover of China, women, fast cars and Morris Dancing

Needham in China during WWII. (Care of NRI. Non-commercial use.)

I had not heard of China-hand Joseph Needham until, direct from China, I moved into his former house in Cambridge. Needham lived in this house for decades with his wife, Dorothy. At some point, his long-time paramour bought a house just around the corner (he and Dorothy at #1 and Lu Gwei-Dje at #28). The three were apparently rather open-minded.

Needham was a biochemist who shifted fields mid-course to obsessively study, research and record the history of science in China. He was the one who learned that the Chinese knew just about everything (gunpowder, printing, navigation, etc.) before the West did. His life-long curiosity was why China seemed to stop making technological advances as the West raced on. This question itself became known as “The Needham Question.”

“Attractive woman on a boat.” Needham WWII photo. (Care of NRI. Non-commercial use.)

Needham started his research on China in the midst of World War II, when Japanese occupation had plunged the country into utter turmoil. The Needham Research Institute (NRI) has made Needham’s wartime photographs available on-line here. Do note how the pictures of machinery and universities are interspersed every so often with a picture of a randomly spotted lovely young woman.

For more on Needham, and his many idiosyncrasies, pick up Simon Winchester’s book, alternately known as “Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China” (in the UK)  or “The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom” (in the US).

Needham WWII Photo in China. (Care of NRI. Non-Commercial Use.)

Needham’s is a great story and there are plenty of nice anecdotes and interesting tidbits in Winchester’s book. One does wonder, however, if Needham’s story would have been even better told by Peter Hessler, who is such an interesting China-watcher and entertaining storyteller.

Needham’s master work itself is the twenty-seven volume, “Science and Civilization in China.”

(One final aside: somewhat eerily, I read about the death of Dorothy Needham in the room where she actually died. Despite not being superstitious, I wonders again, as she types this, whether Dorothy is around someplace. If so: “Goodnight Dorothy.”)

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5 responses to “Joseph Needham: lover of China, women, fast cars and Morris Dancing

    • Ah and old post from when I was trying out writing in the 3rd person… hence the confusion!

      I used to live in Joseph and Dorothy Needham’s former house in Cambridge.

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