Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Needham, John Turberville

NEEDHAM, JOHN TURBERVILLE (1713–1781), catholic divine and man of science, born in London on 10 Sept. 1713, was eldest son of John Needham and Margaret Lucas, his wife, both of whom were well descended. His father was a member of the younger and catholic branch of the family of Needham seated at Hilston, Monmouthshire; the head of the elder and protestant branch was Lord Kilmorey, created a viscount in 1625 [cf. Needham, Charles]. The father, a barrister in London, died young, leaving a considerable fortune and four children, two of whom became priests.

John prosecuted his studies under the secular clergy of the English College at Douay, where he arrived 10 Oct. 1722. He was absent in England from ill-health between 31 May 1729 and 12 June 1730, received the tonsure at Arras on 8 March 1731–2, and was ordained priest at Cambrai on 31 May 1738. From 1736 till 1740 he taught rhetoric in the college. In 1740 he was ordered to the English mission, and directed with great success the school for catholic youth at Twyford, near Winchester. About 1744 Needham went to Lisbon to teach philosophy in the English College, but, disliking the climate, he returned to England after a stay of fifteen months.

Needham had always interested himself in natural science, and during the following years, spent partly in London and partly in Paris, he made important microscopical observations, which he described in the ‘Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London’ in 1749. An account of them was also given in the first volumes of his ‘Natural History’ by Needham's friend Buffon, the French naturalist, with whom Needham did much scientific work. On 22 Jan. 1746–7 Needham was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London, being the first of the English catholic clergy who was admitted to that honour (Thomson, Hist. of Royal Soc. App. p. xliv). On 10 Dec. 1761 he was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

In 1751 Needham travelled abroad as tutor to the Earl of Fingall and Mr. Howard of Corbie. Subsequently he accompanied Lord Gormanston and Mr. Towneley in the same capacity; and lastly Charles Dillon, eldest son of Henry, eleventh viscount Dillon, with whom he spent five years in France and Italy (1762–7). At the end of 1767 Needham retired to the English seminary at Paris, where he devoted himself solely to scientific pursuits; and on 26 March 1768 he was chosen a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences. In 1768 a literary society was founded at Brussels by the government of the Austrian Netherlands. Needham was appointed chief director of the new society in February 1768–9. It rapidly grew into the Imperial Academy, which was established in 1773, and Needham held the same office in relation to it till May 1780. The government also appointed him to a canonry in the collegiate church of Dendermonde, and he afterwards exchanged it for another canonry in the collegiate and royal church of Soignies in Hainaut, being installed on 29 Nov. 1773. He was elected a member of the Royal Basque Society of Amis de la Patrie, established at Vittoria in Spain, 19 Sept. 1771; of the Société d'Emulation of Liège 10 Oct. 1779; and of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 28 July 1781. He died at Brussels on 30 Dec. 1781, and was buried in the vaults of the abbey of Coudenberg.

According to his biographer, the Abbé Mann, Needham was a pattern of piety, temperance, and purity; passionate in his opposition to infidels, and so simple and candid as to be often the dupe of the dishonest. For more than thirty years he enjoyed a high reputation as a man of science. He was a keen and judicious observer, and had a peculiar dexterity in confirming his observations by experiments; but he was sometimes too precipitate in his generalisations. ‘His pen,’ observes the Abbé Mann, ‘was neither remarkable for fecundity nor method; his writings are rather the great lines of a subject expressed with energy and thrown upon paper in a hurry than finished treatises.’

His works are:

  1. ‘An Account of some New Microscopical Discoveries founded on an Examination of the Calamary and its Wonderful Milt-vessels, &c.,’ London, 1745, 8vo; translated into French (‘Découvertes faites avec le Microscope,’ Leyden, 1747, 12mo) by a professor at Leyden, who added remarks of his own; and again by Lavirotte (‘Nouvelles Observations Microscopiques,’ Paris, 1750, 12mo), with a letter from the author to Martin Folkes.
  2. ‘A Letter from Paris, concerning some New Electrical Experiments made there’ (anon.), London, 1746, 4to.
  3. ‘Observations upon the General Composition and Decomposition of Animal and Vegetable Substances; addressed to the Royal Society,’ London, 1749, 4to. In this work he laid the foundations of the physical and metaphysical system which he maintained throughout his life with little variation.
  4. ‘Nouvelles Observations Microscopiques, avec des découvertes intéressantes sur la composition et la décomposition des corps organisés,’ Paris, 1750, 12mo, pp. 524. This work contains the development of the author's system. The ‘Biographie Médicale’ says: ‘Needham maintains that nature is endowed with a productive force, and that every organised substance, from the most simple to the most complex, is formed by vegetation. He undertakes to prove that animals are brought to life from putridity, that they are formed by an expansive and a resistent force, and that they degenerate into vegetables. Generally speaking, his ideas are difficult of comprehension, because they are set forth without lucidity or method.’
  5. ‘Observations des Hauteurs faites avec le baromètre au mois d'Aoust, 1751, sur une partie des Alpes,’ Berne, 1760, 4to; reprinted in Needham's ‘Nouvelles recherches sur les Découvertes Microscopiques,’ ii. 221.
  6. ‘De Inscriptione quâdam Ægyptiacâ Taurini inventâ, et Characteribus Ægyptiacis, olim Sinis communibus, exaratâ, Idolo cuidam antiquo in Regiâ universitate servato, ad utrasque Academias, Londinensem et Parisiensem, rerum antiquarum investigationi et studio præpositas, data Epistola,’ Rome, 1761, 8vo. In this work, which produced a great sensation among the antiquaries of Europe, Needham endeavoured, by means of the Chinese characters, to interpret an Egyptian inscription on a bust, supposed to be that of Isis, which is preserved at Turin. His ingenious theory was completely refuted by Guignes and Bartoli in the ‘Journal des Savans’ (December 1761 and August 1762); also by Winckelmann and Wortley Montague. The jesuits, assisted by the Chinese literati, decided that the characters in question, though four or five bore a sensible resemblance to as many Chinese ones, were not genuine Chinese characters, having no connected sense nor proper resemblance to any of the different forms of writing, and that the whole inscription had nothing Chinese on the face of it; but, in order to promote discoveries, they sent an actual collation of the Egyptian with the Chinese hieroglyphics engraved on twenty-six plates.
  7. ‘Questions sur les Miracles,’ Geneva, 1764, 8vo, Lond. 1769, 8vo; a collection of letters which passed between Needham and Voltaire.
  8. ‘Nouvelles recherches sur les découvertes Microscopiques et la génération des corps organisés; traduites de l'Italien de M. l'Abbé Spalanzani; avec des notes, des Recherches physiques et métaphysiques sur la Nature et la Religion, et une nouvelle Théorie de la Terre, par M. de Needham,’ 2 vols. London and Paris, 1769, 8vo. Appended to the second volume is Needham's ‘Relation de son voyage sur les Alpes, avec la mesure de leurs hauteurs, comparées à celles des Cordilleres.’
  9. ‘Mémoire sur la maladie contagieuse des bêtes à cornes,’ Brussels, 1770, 8vo.
  10. ‘Idée sommaire ou vue générale du système Physique et Métaphysique de M. Needham sur la génération des corps organisés,’ first printed at the end of ‘La vraie Philosophie’ of the Abbé Monestier (Brussels, 1780, 8vo), and afterwards separately (Brussels, 1781, 8vo). In this work he modifies, and even retracts, some of his ideas which seemed to tend towards materialism; but he does this in an obscure and embarrassed manner, and he complains particularly of the consequences which had been deduced from his system by the Baron von Holbach.
  11. ‘Principes de l'Electricité, traduits de l'Anglois de Mylord Mahon,’ Brussels, 1781, 8vo.

A list of his communications to the ‘Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society’ will be found in Watt's ‘Bibliotheca Britannica.’ His contributions to the ‘Mémoires de l'Académie Impériale et Royale des Sciences et Belles Lettres de Bruxelles’ include treatises on the nature and economy of honey-bees; a collection of physical observations, and observations on the natural history of the ant. A complete list is given in Namur's ‘Bibliographie Académique Belge,’ pp. 6, 21, 36, 43, 56.

Needham edited the translation into French verse by John Towneley of Butler's ‘Hudibras,’ London (Paris), 3 vols. 1757, 12mo, and ‘Lettre de Pekin, sur le génie de la langue Chinoise, et la nature de leur écriture symbolique, comparée avec celle des Anciens Egyptiens; en réponse à celle de la Société Royale de Londres, sur le même sujet: avec un Avis Préliminaire de M. Needham, et quelques autres pieces,’ Brussels, 1773, 4to. This was written by Father Cibot, S.J.

[Life by the Abbé Mann in ‘Mémoires de l'Académie de Bruxelles,’ 1783, vol. iv. introd. pp. xxxiii. seq.; Ellis's Letters of Eminent Literary Men, pp. 418, 422; Hutton's Philosophical and Mathematical Dict. 1815; Lowndes's Bibl. Man. (Bohn), p. 336; Monthly Review, 1784, lxx. 524; Nichols's Illustr. of Lit. viii. 605; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. vii. 283, 635; Nouvelle Biog. Générale, xxxvii. 602; Nouveau Dict. Hist.]

T. C.