One of those biographies that leave the reader feeling exhausted and ineffectual

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

John Derbyshire recently read one of those biographies that leave the reader feeling exhausted and ineffectual:

Joseph Needham’s first career was as a biochemist, one of great distinction. He took his degree at Cambridge University in 1921, then joined the research team of Frederick Gowland Hopkins, co-discoverer of vitamins and the first ever professor of biochemistry at Cambridge. The young man blossomed at the university, taking up nudism, English folk dance, Christian socialism, and sex, all with unrestrained enthusiasm. In 1924 he contracted an “open” marriage with Dorothy Moyle, a fellow researcher at Hopkins’s lab. They remained married until her death sixty-three years later.

A month after his marriage, Needham was awarded his doctorate and elected a fellow of his college, equivalent to tenure. He settled into academic life, in 1931 producing a three-volume work, Chemical Embryology, that was definitive in its tiny field.

In the late summer of 1937, Needham’s life turned a crucial corner. A young Chinese woman, Lu Gwei-djen, arrived at Hopkins’s institute to study, along with two other Chinese scientists. Needham and Lu quickly became lovers, with Dorothy’s full knowledge and approval. It was inevitable that Needham, with his keen curiosity towards everything he encountered, would want to learn about China.

Working from Needham’s diaries, Winchester reconstructs the key scene in some detail. Needham and his new mistress were both cigarette smokers. Lying in bed in his rooms one evening in February 1938, the two lovers lit up. Needham asked Lu to give him the Chinese word for “cigarette.” She duly did so: it is xiangyan — “fragrant smoke.” He then asked her to show him how the word is written. She wrote the two Chinese characters, and coached Needham through the writing of them.

“It was very sudden,” Gwei-djen remembered. “He said to me: I must learn this language — or bust!” She was to be his first teacher, he demanded, urgently. And she agreed, readily.

Thus Joseph Needham acquired what administrators at lonely outposts in the British Empire used to call a “sleeping dictionary.” His keen intellect and capacity for hard mental work took care of the rest. Through 1938 and 1939 he studied hard, attaining spoken and written fluency. Lu drafted in the professor of Chinese at Cambridge as an assistant teacher. By the time Britain entered World War II, Needham was ready for a career in sinology.

While mastering Chinese, Needham remained a professor of biochemistry. In 1942, he published a major work, Biochemistry and Morphogenesis, that was a standard text in its field for twenty years. The man’s energy was simply astonishing. Reports Winchester:

He completed this book while he was still campaigning in England and lecturing in America for recognition of the plight of the Chinese, and at the same time was busy teaching his students, writing his half-crown monograph … on the history of a particular branch of English socialism, regularly giving morris dance performances, swimming naked, attending meetings of the Cambridge Communist Party, offering sermons from the pulpit at Thaxted Church, and living through the manifold complications of his peculiarly organized love life.

Needham’s travels in China generated a vast apocrypha:

Needham and his party were traveling on horseback with guides through a remote, forested region. Suddenly they came up against another horseback party on the trail, led by a notorious local bandit, their terrified guides whispered. Needham dismounted, stepped in front of his party, up to the bandit leader’s horse, and with his customary vigor executed an English folk dance. The bandit leader watched with interest. When Needham had finished, the bandit dismounted, stepped forward, and performed one of his own people’s dances. The ice thus broken, everyone laughed and shook hands, and the two parties proceeded on their respective ways.

Read the whole review.

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