John Turberville Needham, more commonly known as John Needham, was an English naturalist and Roman Catholic cleric. He was the first clergyman to be elected to the Royal Society of London.
He is also noted for his theory of spontaneous generation and the scientific evidence he had presented to support it.
Born in London on 10 September in 1713, John Turbeville Needham was a Roman Catholic priest. He was one of four children to John Needham, a barrister and Martha Lucas. His father died when John was a child and young John became a Franciscan. John studied at the English College at Douai in northern France from 1722 to 1736. He was ordained in 1738, however he preferred to spend his time as a teacher and tutor.
From 1736 Needham taught at a college in Cambrai, France and in 1740 he moved to England as an assistant master to a Catholic school near at Twyford, Winchester.
He spent a short time teaching in Lisbon in 1744, returning to England in 1745 for health reasons. His microscopic observations of blighted wheat while he was in Twyford and his investigations into the organs of the squid while in Lisbon, were the subjects of his first works.
In 1747 he was elected to the Royal Society of London.
Needham became a tutor to several young catholic men on their “grand tours” from 1751 to 1767 and his travels included France, Switzerland and Italy.
In 1767 he retired to St Gregory’s College in Paris and became director of the Brussels Academy (Académie impériale et royale des Sciences et Belles-Lettres de Bruxelles) in 1773, a position he held until 1780.
Contributions and Achievements:
Needham’s microscopic observations were published in “An Account of some New Microscopical Discoveries” in 1745 and further studies were recorded in detail his work “Observations upon the generation, composition and decomposition of animal and vegetable substances” in 1749.
Needham established from his observations that micro-organisms do not grow from eggs and proposed a theory of spontaneous generation whereby living organisms develop from non-living matter at the microscopic level.
He carried out microscopic observations with the comte de Buffon in 1748. Needham later conducted a learned correspondence with naturalist Charles Bonnet and biologist Lazzaro Spallanzani on the issue of generation.
He faced harsh criticism from Voltaire, because he had tried to establish that tiny microscopic animals, or “anguilles” in his own words, can be developed spontaneously by natural forces in a sealed container. Voltaire, who firmly believed in pre-existing germs, thought that Needham’s ideas could possibly create much controversy as they appeared to endorse materialism and atheism.
Needham also made important contributions to botany and explained the mechanics of pollen.
Later Life and Death:
John Needham died on December 30, 1781. He was 68 years old.