Citations and Speeches

Citations

87th Congregation (1974)

Joseph NEEDHAM
M.A., Ph.D.,Sc.D., D.Sc., F.R.S., F.B.A., F.I.Biol.

The Public Orator Mr. Hugh David Turner, B.A., M.Litt., wrote and delivered the following citation:

We are now privileged to have before us Joseph Needham, a man of towering stature. Scientist, historian, philosopher, mystic, educator - he is that rarest of creatures, a polymath. Honours and awards, impossible to enumerate in full, have rained thick and fast upon him, and it is occasion for rejoicing that this University should be counted amongst those distinguished institutions to recognize this inhabitant of diverse cultures.

Joseph Needham, son of a Harley Street father and a musician mother, was educated at Oundle. From the banks of the River Nene, after a short interval on more turbulent waters when in the Royal Navy during the First World War, he removed to the River Cam, entering Gonville and Caius College. At Cambridge his mentor was Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, one of the founders of biochemistry, in whose laboratory Dr. Needham first encountered his future wife, Dorothy Moyle, a fellow student, herself to become a biochemist of the highest distinction. In 1924 they were married and Joseph Needham was elected to a Fellowship of Caius. Some nine years later he was made Sir William Dunn Reader in Biochemistry at Cambridge, an appointment which he was to hold until 1966. During the 'thirties, he was best known for his classic works, Chemical Embryology, Biochemistry and Morphogenesis, and especially his magisterial History of Embryology, published in 1935. This was exciting matter. Embryology then had much the same fascination and breathtaking promise for biology students as molecular biology has for them today. The last book also made clear Dr. Needham's interest in the history and philosophy of science, which subject, largely thanks to his impetus is today formally taught at Cambridge. The magnitude of his learning left his scientific contemporaries awestruck and it was confidently asserted that he read scientific papers even at the breakfast table. He probably did, but he also devoured a more varied diet; religion, history, philosophy, politics. The Cambridge of the nineteen-thirties seethed with intellectual ferment. Joseph Needham, from his youth a self-avowed political animal, along with his wife and many of his colleagues, ardently desired to utilize science for the betterment of mankind. It was the Second World War which was the catalyst, enabling him to realize this ambition and, at the same time, providing him with the inspiration and the materials for his later magnum opus. In 1942 Dr. Needham went to China as Head of the British Scientific Mission. He later was appointed Scientific Counsellor at the British Embassy, Chung-king, and he served as specialist adviser to the Chinese Government. He arrived no novice. The presence of Chinese friends in Cambridge laboratories had stimulated his interest in Chinese science, had impelled him to teach himself the language. His wartime duties were demanding and he worked feverishly, organizing the supply of scientific and techno-logical equipment so essential for the beleaguered Chinese; travelling the length and breadth of Free China visiting and encouraging innumerable scientists and engineers. No obstacle deterred him and when mechanized transport would not answer he resorted to river-junks, pack-horses, and carried litters. Even wheelbarrows and goatskin-rafts were employed. "Probably in no other way and at no other time could he have gained such detailed and intimate knowledge of China and its culture." His mission ended in 1946 but he had already started agitating, in America, Russia, England, and many other countries, for the establishment of an International Science Cooperation Agency. The subsequent incorporation of the natural sciences in UNESCO owes much to Joseph Needham's initiative and it occasioned no surprise when he became the first Director of its Natural Sciences Division. He continues as an Honorary Counsellor of UNESCO. But Cambridge called and in 1948, he returned to Caius, of which College he has been Master these last eight years. 1948 also saw Dr. Dorothy Needham join her husband as a Fellow of the Royal Society, the first married couple to be so honoured since the rather special case of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort. At Caius he began, with his close collaborators, his most daunting and important undertaking, the multi-volume Science and Civilization in China. Together with its subsidiary monographs it will, when completed, constitute a systematic survey of the contribution of traditional Chinese culture through the ages to the sum total of human knowledge of Nature and the control of natural processes; a task never before attempted but greatly necessary. This encyclopaedic work, written in arresting expository prose and informed by Dr. Needham's own sense of excitement, has overturned the conceptions of a generation of historians of science, has forced Western scholars to discard many tired and tiresome shibboleths and make a fresh appraisal of the full scope of Chinese civilization. This monumental work already constitutes one of the most remarkable achievements of modern scholarship and a major contribution to international understanding. This is as Joseph Needham would have it, for it accords with his vision of that cooperative commonwealth which, one day, will unite all humanity as the waters cover the sea, and enable the human race to enjoy the "common treasury of right-loving people".

Mr. Chancellor, I ask you to bestow upon Joseph Needham, this 'Teacher of Nations', the honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters.