Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 6, Biology and Biological Technology; Part 6, Medicine

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9780521632621: Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 6, Biology and Biological Technology; Part 6, Medicine
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The latest volume in Joseph Needham's magisterial revelation of China's premodern scientific and technological traditions introduces medicine. Five essays are included by Joseph Needham and Lu Gwei-djen, edited and expanded upon by the editor, Nathan Sivin. The essays offer broad and readable accounts of medicine in culture, including hygiene and preventive medicine, forensic medicine and immunology. Professor Sivin's extensive introduction discusses these essays, placing them in their historical and medical context, and surveys recent medical discoveries from China, Japan, Europe and the United States.

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From The New England Journal of Medicine:

Joseph Needham (1900-1995) was the Sir William Dunn Reader in Biochemistry at Cambridge University for many years and author of two classic works that synthesized morphology, embryology, and biochemistry for the first time, Chemical Embryology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1931) and Biochemistry and Morphogenesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1942). In the late 1930s, Needham became interested in the scientific traditions of East Asia, China in particular, and he turned much of his energy, enthusiasm, and erudition to this field in the form of a massive project to compile the records and history of what he saw as science and civilization in China. This project, still ongoing more than 50 years after its inception, has resulted in the publication of a massive series of dense tomes under the broad title of Science and Civilization in China, the first volume of which appeared in 1954. The original plan for the project envisioned 7 topical volumes, but subsequent research and interests have, so far, resulted in the publication of 22 substantial books. Some scholars have described Needham's project as the greatest feat of historical scholarship of all time. Not only did Needham write books, he also developed the world center for research on the history of East Asian science at Cambridge, with library facilities, collaborators, and financial support. Perhaps even more important, he set the intellectual agenda for the entire field of the historical study of science in East Asia.

For some volumes, he took on collaborators with special skills and detailed technical knowledge, but throughout this series, Needham's philosophical stance and his view of history are clearly communicated. The detail and scope of the individual volumes are quite variable. Some treat subjects broadly -- for example, the entire field of Chinese mathematics is covered in one volume; other volumes devote hundreds of pages to a specific topic, such as spinning and reeling in the textile industry. All you might ever want to know about the history of rudder design in Chinese junks can be found in another volume. Thus, the publication of the volume on the history of medicine in China, issued as part 6 of volume 6, has been awaited with some anticipation. Would it be massive, detailed, and comprehensive? Or would it be a selective survey?

Time eventually caught up even with Joseph Needham, and it became clear in the early 1990s that he would be unable to complete the projected volume on medicine in China. Needham enlisted Nathan Sivin, an eminently qualified sinologist and historian of science, to oversee the publication of this book. Sivin and Needham discussed and negotiated the content and final form of the book before Needham's death in 1995.

This volume on medicine is a radical departure from the format and style of previous volumes. Rather than a single, integrated historical account, it is an edited collection of five previously published essays by Joseph Needham and his long-time collaborator Lu Gwei-Djen, with a lengthy critical essay by Nathan Sivin as an introduction. Sivin and Needham selected these essays to illustrate Needham's vision of the main themes in Chinese medicine, as well as to present Needham's underlying historical philosophy. These essays deal with medicine in Chinese culture, hygiene and preventive medicine in ancient China, the origins of qualifying examinations in medicine, Asian origins of immunology, and forensic medicine in ancient China.

The best review of this collection is given by the editor in his introductory essay. Sivin clearly identifies Needham's philosophical stance: history is global in scope, priority in discovery is a central historical issue, and "getting it right by current standards" is the yardstick of historical judgment. As Sivin points out in his lucid introduction, the second and third of these particular approaches are considered flawed by modern scholars, and much of Needham's work must be understood in the context of his somewhat idiosyncratic ideas. This introduction is essential for a full appreciation of the essays that follow. As editor of the volume, Sivin has gently amended some of the essays and added explanatory and cautionary footnotes to include recent works and to indicate alternative views. The discussions between Needham and Sivin while they were preparing this book must have been both interesting and contentious.

The essays on immunology and on forensic medicine are especially interesting and useful because they collect much information not available elsewhere in English. The essay on immunology focuses on smallpox inoculation (not vaccination), which Needham and Lu date to mid-16th century Chinese sources. The chapter on forensic medicine presents a comparative history of forensic practices in the West and in China. A main source is a Sung dynasty manual for coroners dated to 1247 (Hsi yuan chi lu). Both chapters include extensive translations from Chinese sources that support the authors' arguments.

This book is a fitting tribute to Needham's genius and his particular views of history and the history of science. The introductory essay by the editor is a valuable guide to understanding Needham's work and its relation to current scholarship in the field. This new addition to the series, however, falls short as a current, comprehensive, and authoritative work on the history of medicine in China. Surprisingly, and unfortunately, we still await one.

William C. Summers, M.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 2000 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.

Review:

"[An] astonishing and enduring study...[Needham brings] depth of emotion and technical finesse to his task."
Jonathan Spence, New York Review of Books

"Perhaps the greatest single act of historical synthesis and intercultural communication ever attempted by one man."
Laurence Picken, Cambridge University

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