After a solitary childhood and a conventional upper-middle-class British upbringing he went up to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, initially intending to become a doctor like his father. But he soon changed his mind and followed his tutor's advice to switch to chemistry. Having obtained his degree he took a research post in biochemistry under Frederick Gowland Hopkins. Here he soon began to make a name for himself and went on to publish an important book on embryology among other things. It looked likely that he would continue to be known as a scientist in academic circles but would have little impact on the wider world.
The watershed event in Needham's life occurred in 1937, when he was visited in his laboratory at Cambridge by Lu Gwei-djen, a beautiful and brilliant young Chinese biochemist with whom he fell deeply in love. The resulting relationship was to last for the rest of his life, It was fully accepted by his wife, Dorothy. She had married Needham in 1924; in spite of their deeply held Christian beliefs theirs had been an open marriage from the outset.
Gwei-djen began to teach Needham to speak, read, and write Chinese. As he did with everything he took up, he threw himself into the work almost to the point of obsession, developing his own methods of acquiring and ordering the information. So he fell in love simultaneously with Gwei-djen and with her country. And she implanted in him the idea that was to dominate the rest of his life: that China's contribution to science and technology had been far greater than the West had acknowledged.
In 1943 Needham had the opportunity to see China at first hand. The country was in crisis as a result of the Japanese invasion, and Needham was sent by the British government to see what could be done to support the Chinese educational system, which the Japanese were seeking to destroy. He was based in Chonqing, then the capital, but he travelled ceaselessly, making eleven expeditions that covered some 30,000 miles in mostly remote and sometimes dangerous regions. Officially these journeys were to encourage the scientists in remote areas, to provide them with equipment, and to wave the British flag. Unofficially he was making his own academic assessment of Chinese science and technology. He kept extensive notes and sent a huge amount of material hack to Cambridge.
Two of Needham's expeditions are described in vivid detail. One, the longest he undertook, brought him to the far north-west at Dunhuang, the beginning of the Silk Road. The other, to the south-east, nearly resulted in his being captured by the Japanese.
After the war Needham was invited by his friend Julian Huxley to join UNESCO in Paris. He did so for two years, but the Americans were suspicious of UNESCO, which they regarded as a left-wing organisation, and made travelling to the USA difficult. In 1948 Needham resigned and returned to Cambridge.
The rest of Needham's life was closely bound up with his masterpiece, Science and Civilisation in China. This was initially supposed to be one volume; by the end of his life the tally was 24 and work on the project has continued after his death. Winchester provides a lively account of how the work went on. Today it would have happened digitally and via the internet, but Needham, of course, did it all manually. He typed the text himself, at great speed, using two fingers. Although normally a courteous man he tolerated no interruption; when Huxley arrived from London without an appointment Needham refused to see him. He had one full-time assistant at first; later he was joined by Gwei-djen, who lived just a hundred yards away from Needham and Dorothy; all three met almost daily.
Needham's first volume was highly praised by many critics and his fame grew and grew. But just when everything seemed to be going his way there was a disaster. The Korean war was going on and the Chinese accused the Americans of having attempted to use biological warfare. They set up an international commission to investigate this and asked Needham to head it. Unwisely, he agreed. The commission was shown evidence and Needham spoke to many Chinese scientists whom he knew and trusted. He concluded that the Americans had indeed used weapons of this kind and issued a report accordingly.
In fact, information has later emerged from Moscow which makes it clear that the "evidence" provided to Needham was manufactured and there is little chance that the Americans were guilty. In other words, Needham was duped. But that was not how it was seen at home, let alone in the USA. On his return to Britain he was vilified by the press and effectively ostracised by nearly all his colleagues at Gonville and Caius; he was even in danger of losing his fellowship. It was no longer possible for him to obtain a visa to go to the USA. But he continued to work, and after a difficult five years the climate changed. Eventually Needham actually became Master of the College.
After Dorothy's death Needham married Lu Gwei-djen, but both were in poor health by this time and she died a little over two years later. Needham was devastated by her death but continued working until the very end. In spite of constant smoking throughout his adult life he lived to 94.
Winchester has written a very readable biography of this remarkable man. I would have liked to know more about how he managed to reconcile his evidently profound Christian belief with his unorthodox emotional life, but perhaps there is no evidence on this. Winchester does discuss the so-called "Needham question": why did Chinese science and technology cease to progress after about 1500, leaving China in the backward state it remained in for the next five centuries? This puzzle is still debated today by scholars, but Winchester suggests that it is largely an illusion. The history of China spans such a long time that 500 years hardly matter, and China is already resuming its scientific advance.