William Speirs Bruce

1867 - 1921

William Speirs Bruce
©2022 Gazetteer for Scotland

William Speirs Bruce

Oceanographer and Polar Explorer. Although born in London (England), Bruce was the son of a Scottish physician and came north to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Immediately thereafter he became one of the first of his era to explore the Antarctic, accompanying the Dundee whalers to the Southern Ocean in 1892. Bruce was the leader of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (1902-04), which discovered Coats Land, named in honour of the Paisley thread-manufacturing brothers who had funded the major part of the expedition. This successful expedition was founded on science, producing much data, biological and geological specimens, as well as exploring some 150 miles (240 km) of the ice shelf which formed the Antarctic coastline, establishing the first meteorological station in Antarctica (South Orkneys) and made the first moving film of the Antarctic continent.

Bruce went on to found the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory in Edinburgh (1907). He advised Robert Falcon Scott (1912) that his supply dumps were too far apart to succeed in his attempt on the South Pole!

Bruce was a founder of the Scottish Ski Club and of Edinburgh Zoo, serving as first President of the former and first Vice President of the latter, under Edward Salvesen (1857 - 1942), with whom Bruce collaborated to bring penguins from the Antarctic.

He maintained a home in Portobello and was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1904. Bruce was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh the following year and awarded an honorary degree by the University of Aberdeen in 1906. Other honours followed, although he never courted public acclaim and, perhaps because of this or indeed because of the success of his well-planned expedition, he never achieved the recognition of other polar explorers of the time. Another reason was that he had been slighted by Sir Clements Markham of the Royal Geographical Society who severely disapproved of Bruce's Scottish initiative, accusing Bruce of "mischievous rivalry" and attempting to undermine Markham's vision of a British National Antarctic Expedition. Markham thus ensured that Bruce never received any British honours, including a Polar Medal which he so richly deserved.

Bruce died in Liberton Hospital, Edinburgh, after a long illness. He was cremated in Glasgow and his ashes were scattered in the Southern Ocean. A lecture room at the Scottish Association for Marine Science at Dunstaffnage and a laboratory at the British Antarctic Survey Research Station on Signy Island, in the South Orkneys, are now named in his honour.

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