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Did you know Joseph Needham

Did You Know?
By D.P. Agrawal

Question: Did you know Joseph Needham, in addition to his work on science in China, was equally impressed by the achievements of India in the field of knowledge and learning?

Joseph Needham is famous mainly for the formidable magnitude and scholarship of his work on science in China. In the years between 1920 and 1942 Needham was a well known biochemist, before he became simply obsessed with the ancient science and technology of China for almost half a century. But few people know that he was equally impressed by the achievements of India in the field of knowledge and learning. In his lecture to the students of Cambridge University in 1963 he gave full compliments to India’s intellectual heritage. He said, ‘it is good to remember, therefore, that our own pious founders were not the only men, and that Christendom was not the only culture, to set on foot great and noble institutions of learning where successive generations of students assembled to get the benefits of education and research. When the men of Alexander the Great came to Taxila in India in the fourth century BC they found a university the like of which had not then been seen in Greece… and was still existing when the Chinese pilgrim Fa-Hsien went there about AD 400. Later the torch of learning moved to Buddhist Nalanda in Bihar, as we know from the account of that other great pilgrim Hsuang-Chuang in the seventh century. In China the foundation of the Imperial University goes back to 165 BC and by the beginning of the Christian era it had no less than 3,000 students’. In turning to the arts and sciences of Arabic culture, Needham reminds his listeners of a provocative Islamic saying, ‘the ink of science is more precious than the blood of Martyrs’. Emphatically deprecating the Eurocentric ways of thinking, Needham wants them to be humble and asks, ‘How are we to look upon all these achievements of people who were neither British nor European, neither Christian, nor ‘white’? … Today, at a time when international political tensions are intermingled with racial factors, it is more than ever essential that we approach people of other cultures with the conviction that they have at least as much to give us as we have to give to them.’


Davies, Mansel. 1990. A Selection from the Writings of Joseph Needham. The Book Guild limited.

Editorial. 2001. Science and Society: Bernal, Needham and Pauling. Current Science. Vol. 81, No. 9 : 1149-1150