The Man Who Loved Scholars

I am a huge fan of Simon Winchester — a peripatetic Brit who writes brilliantly about geology, lexicography, and sinology. At his best, Winchester turns science into biography by demonstrating how an obscure scholar shaped our view of the world.
Winchester majored in geology at Oxford and worked in the field for many years before turning to writing. His 2001 book The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology is a fine treatise on a man whose world map revolutionized shipping, energy, religion, and science and inspired a young Charles Darwin as he sailed across the globe. Winchester followed with Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded in 2003 — the colorful story of the largest volcanic eruption ever recorded. In 2005 hepublished A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. All three books are cogent history, good science, frequently funny, and in the case of the volume on Smith, compelling biography.

Winchester’s pair of books on the Oxford English Dictionary traces the impact of the remarkable James Murray, effectively the author of the massive OED. The story, published in the US as The Professor and the Madman, tells the story of Murray and of one of his most prolific contributors, an American civil war surgeon, Dr. WC Minor, who, unbeknownst to Murray, was convicted of murder in England and authored more than ten thousand entries to the OED from his book-lined cell in the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminaly Insane. In 2003, Winchester followed this best-seller with The Meaning of Everything – the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The first is a classic must-read best-seller; I haven’t read the second.

Winchester has now also produced two excellent books on China. In 1996 he attempted to trace the headwaters of the Yangtze and to use his journey to highlight the hidden history of the Middle Kingdom. The resulting travel guide summary of Chinese history, The River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time, was a great read, even if the premise of the book required a bit of upstream paddling If nothing else, the book confirmed Winchester’s gift for finding editors to send him on lovely trips. (National Geographic commissioned him to visit each of the six major whirlpools on earth. Nice work if you can get it!)

Just out and a wonderful summer read is The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom — the life of Joseph Needham. Once again, Winchester writes a definitive biography of an obscure and slightly odd British scholar in order to tell a fascinating story.

Joseph Needham was a brilliant Cambridge biochemist. To this day he is the only scientist ever awarded the Order of the Companions of Honour by the Queen, and elected by his peers as Fellow of both the Royal Society and the British Academy. He married Dorothy Mary Moyle Needham, also an accomplished biochemist, and also a Fellow of the Royal Society, (they are the only married couple ever elected to this elite institution of top scientists).

But the world will not remember Joseph Needham for his biochemistry. We will will remember instead his work in an entirely unrelated field for which Needham was untrained and uncredentialed. Needham is the author of one of the most comprehensive and remarkable works of scholarship ever published — The History of Science and Technology in China. When he died in 1998, his “book” had become a multi-scholar project that had produced of seventeen volumes all overseen by Needham. It is now twenty-four. The work has reshaped not only the West’s understanding of China’s scientific and technological past — but China’s understanding of its own history as well.

The research is stunning. Needham realized that Chinese scientists and inventors did not just develop the compass, gunpowder, paper, and printing before the west — they invented or discovered just about everything else as well, from vaccines and tree grafting, coinage and hydrology, to deodorant and toilet paper. The depth and breadth of Chinese science and technology is utterly extraordinary — as is the mystery as to why the rate of innovation in the west suddenly surpassed China’s, known today as “the Needham question”. And the discovery would not likely have been made by an ordinary scientist.
But Needham was neither an ordinary scientist nor an ordinary human. He was a hopeless polyglot. He prided himself a committed nudist and Morris dancer (interests that he graciously pursued separately). He was a non-doctrinaire but nonetheless blinkered socialist (Mao Zedong and Chou Enlai happily exploited Needham’s prestige for their own propaganda on more than one occasion).

Perhaps most important, he was a man who effectively took two wives — the distinguished colleague noted earlier and a graduate student named Lu Gwei-djen, who anchored the remarkably open marriage for more than fifty years. It was Lu who introduced Needham to China, taught him to read, write, and speak fluent Mandarin, and collaborated with him on his life’s most important work. Needham married Lu when Dorothy died (he was, after all, a devout Catholic).

During the second World War, Needham was sent by the British Society and Churchill to give aid and comfort to scientists in “Free China”. This gave Needham extraordinary license to travel throughout any part of China not occupied by Japan. He was based in Chongqing (today the largest city in China, with a population as big as California) but traveled very widely and under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Wherever he went, Needham met with scientists, ordered essential supplies for them from the UK, gathered on the history of Chinese science and technology, and shipped crate-loads of books and documents back to Cambridge.

After the war, Needham devoted his life to his magnum opus, helped found UNESCO (he is credited by many with putting the “S” in the UN’s Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), and somewhat blindly promoted the Chinese Communist government (on occasion willfully overlooking evidence of its brutality and economic failure). But his work has been universally acclaimed and seems likely to be consulted as long as the OED or Smith’s maps for helping us understand that a great deal of the science and technology that we take for granted came from China, not the west.

Winchester loves China and clearly identifies with Needham as strongly as he did James Murray and William Smith. Once again, Winchester’s research is extensive and carefully documented, his story highly compelling, and his writing first rate. In the end, I wish he had been able to shed more light on the Needham question — but it is unfair to expect him to solve a riddle that eluded Joseph Needham himself.

A fine read — highly recommended.