Needham, John Turberville

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(b. London, England, 10 September 1713; d. Brussels, Belgium, 30 December 1781)

biology, microscopy.

Needham’s most important contributions to science were early observations of plant pollen and the milt vessels of the squid, a forward-looking theory of reproduction (1750), and a classic experiment for determining whether spontaneous generation occurs on the microscopic level (1748).

The son of recusants, John Needham and Margaret Lucas, Needham received a religious education in French Flanders, which prepared him for the intellectual life of the Continent. Ordained a secular priest in 1738, he supported himself first by teaching, and then by accompanying young English Catholic noblemen on the grand tour, until he settled in Brussels in 1768 as director of what was to become the Royal Academy of Belgium. His scientific interests were motivated largely by a desire to defend religion in an age when biological question had serious theological and philosophical meanings for many. Needham’s extrascientific activities made him equally well known throughout educated Europe; in these he also defended Faith. He was particularly notable for his dispute with Voltaire over miracles and for a linguistic theory of the biblical chronology based on a supposedly Egyptian statue.

Needham was elected a fellow of the Royal Society (1747) and of the Society of Antiquaries of London (1761), as Buffon’s correspondent for the Académie des Sciences (1768), a member of the Royal Basque Society of Amis de la Patrie, and first director of the Royal Academy of Belgium (1773), where he did much to disseminate advanced laboratory techniques. A genus of Australian plants, Needhama, was named for him.

Until cell theory reconciled both aspects of the problem of reproduction, explanations emphasized either the preformed nature of the primordia out of which new organisms came into being (were generated) or the gradual differentiation of growing tissue apparent in the embryo. During Needham’s lifetime iatromechanists insisted on preformation, since known mechanical principles could not account for extensive differentiation; vitalists, led by Buffon, accounted for extensive differentiation through chance combining of genetic factors brought together by hypothetical natural principles that were peculiar to living things but that contemporary science had yet to discover.

In 1748, at Buffon’s invitation, Needham examined fluids extracted from the reproductive organs of animals and infusions of plant and animal tissue. Given the weak, indistinct magnifying power of instruments then available, it is not surprising that the two men observed globules under their microscopes. For Buffon these were genetic factors, which he termed “organic molecules.”

The second volume of Buffon’s Histoire naturelle (1749) based proof of the “organic molecules” largely on these experiments, which in turn rested on Needham’s skill and reknown as an empirical scientist. Thus Needham found himself at the focal point of the controversy over generation.

Buffon never claimed to have observed the microscopic joining of molecules that he speculated took place, but Needham thought he actually did see new organisms taking shape out of disorganized material. This was his famous experiment with boiled mutton gravy (1748). Foreshadowing recapitulation theory, he “saw” certain species of microscopic creatures giving birth to other species of animalcules and imagined that in embryonic development of higher organisms a similar phenomenon must occur. Needham’s own theory of generation (1750) placed him in the vitalist camp through its reliance on principles peculiar to living things and its assignment of self-patterning powers to matter. It differed from Buffon’s in its denial of chance combinations of mathematically countable genetic traits.

In Needham’s view God would not allow chance to play a role in reproduction. The embryo was not preformed but predetermined. Two kinds of physical force were the building blocks of all matter. In each embryo a specific combination of these elements was contributed by each parent. This combination produced a unique vibratory motion which simultaneously molded the growing embryonic tissue into new shapes and changed their chemistry. Thus Needham considered the organism on physical, chemical, and biological levels, an approach through which the mechanist-vitalist controversy was later transcended. In his correspondence Needham, in the tradition of Aristotle and Descartes, referred to “my system of spontaneous generation and epigenesis.”

The many attempts to refute Needham’s claim were based either on logic or on inconclusive experiments until 1765, when Spallanzani boiled hermetically sealed mutton gravy and, upon opening the flasks, found nothing there where Needham claimed to have found animalcules. For Needham’s sterilization techniques had in fact been faulty. While the iatromechanists sided with Spallanzani, the matter was not settled until Pasteur replied to Needham’s contention (in footnotes to Spallanzani’s Nouvelles recherches, 1769) that through using a longer boiling period Spallanzani had destroyed something in the air responsible for sustaining life.


I. Original Works. For further references and a bibliography of Needham’s works consult Dictionary of National Biography, XIV (1967–1968), 157–159; Bibliographical Dictionary of the English Catholics.

On early observations and the spontaneous generation controversy, see Needham’s An Account of Some New Microscopical Discoveries Founded on an Examination of the Calamary and Its Wonderful Milt–Vessels (London, 1745); “A Summary of Some Late Observations Upon the generation, Composition, and Decomposition of Animal and Vegetable Substances,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 45 , no. 490 (1748), 615–666; and Nouvelles observations microscopiques, avecdes découvertes intéressantes sur la composition et la décomposition des corps organisés (Paris, 1750).

Correspondence between Needham and Charles Bonnet and a rare pamphlet, Idées républicaines, par un membre d’un corps, M.D.V., published anonymously (Geneva, 1766), are in the Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire, Geneva; Mémoire sur la maladie contagieuse des bêtes à cornes (Brussels, 1770) is in the Belgian National Library (Bibliothèque Royale Albert ler); and a portrait of Needham (by Henry Edridge after Reynolds) is in the Holburne of Menstrie Museum, Great Pulteney St., Bath, England.

II. Secondary Literature. Lazzaro Spallanzani’s works on spontaneous generation are Saggio de observazione microscopiche concernante il systema della generazione de Needham et Buffon (Modena, 1765); Nouvelles recherches sur les découvertes microscopiques et la generation des corps organizes (London-Paris, 1769); and Opuscoli de fisica animale et vegetabile (Modena, 1776).

See also Silvio Curto, “Storia di un falso celebre,” in Bollettino delta Societa pienumtese d’archeologia e belle arti (1962 1963), 5–15, with four plates; Elizabeth Gasking, Investigations Into generation 1651–1828 (Baltimore, 1967); Stephen F. Milliken, “Buffon and the British” (doctoral diss., Columbia University, 1965); Jacques Roger, Les sciences de la vie dans la pensée française du XVIII‘ siècle (Paris, 1963); Jean Rostand, La genèse de la vie (Paris, 1943) and Lea origines de la biologic experimentale et l’abbé Spallanzani (Paris, 1951); and Rachel Westbrook, “John Turberville Needham and His Impact on the French Enlightenment” (diss, in progress, Columbia University).

Rachel Horwitz Westbrook