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William Speirs Bruce (1867 – 1921)

Scottish naturalist, polar scientist and oceanographer who led the first and only Scottish National Antarctic Expedition.

William S Bruce

Born in London in August 1867, the fourth child of Samuel Noble Bruce, a Scottish physician, and his Welsh wife Mary, William Speirs Bruce developed an early interest in the natural world from trips to Kensington Gardens and the Natural History Museum.

Having decided to study medicine at University College London (UCL), he was all set to begin his studies in the autumn of 1887, when a summer trip to Edinburgh to take courses at the Scottish Marine Station at Granton on the Firth of Forth changed his mind and the direction that his future life would take.

A new challenge

His experiences at Granton under the tutelage of Patrick Geddes and John Arthur Thomson, convinced William to stay in Scotland and he abandoned his place at UCL and enrolled instead at the University of Edinburgh.

Despite studying medicine, Bruce was increasingly drawn to the relatively new science of oceanography and worked in the University’s laboratories during his free time under Dr John Murray on the examination and classification of specimens brought back from the Challenger expedition.

Polar magnetism

In 1892, William Bruce took time out of his medical studies and joined the Dundee Whaling Expedition to Antarctic waters as a scientific observer and naturalist. Though the expedition provided little opportunity for scientific work, Bruce found the experience inspirational and decided to abandon his medical studies completely and devote himself to polar science.

Working next at the high-level meteorological observatory on Ben Nevis, Bruce gained experience of working in sub-zero temperatures and further honed his knowledge of scientific procedures and the use of meteorological instruments.

Arctic exploration

Between 1895 and 1899 Bruce took part in several Arctic voyages including the Jackson-Harmsworth expedition to the Franz Josef Archipelago, where he spent a year collecting around 700 zoological specimens.

This was followed in 1898 by a hunting voyage to Novaya Zemlya and Spitsbergen, a hydrographic survey around Spitsbergen with Prince Albert I of Monaco and finally in 1899 another oceanographic cruise to Spitsbergen with the Prince to survey Red Bay in the north of the archipelago.

Despite being one of the most experienced and best equipped polar scientists in Britain, he rarely had settled salaried work and so, after the conclusion of the final Spitsbergen expedition, returned to Edinburgh where he married, settled in Portobello and had two children. During this period, he also founded the Scottish Ski Club and was a co-founder of Edinburgh Zoo.

Piper Gilbert Kerr with penguin
Gilbert Kerr, bagpiper, with penguin. Photographed by William Speirs Bruce during the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, 1902-04. Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

The Scotia

After he was overlooked by Sir Clements Markham during the planning for National Antarctic Expedition (generally known as the Discovery Expedition), William Speirs Bruce turned to the Scottish Geographical Society to fund an alternative venture. Under Bruce’s direction this venture became the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition.

The expedition sailed from Troon on November 2, 1902, and made two voyages to the Antarctic, returning in July 1904 to the Marine Station in Millport, where Bruce was presented with the Royal Geographical Society’s Gold Medal and a telegram of congratulation from King Edward VII.

The expedition assembled a large collection of animal, marine and plant specimens, and carried out extensive hydrographic, magnetic and meteorological observations.

Recognition and legacy

Although his name was respected in scientific circles, William Speirs Bruce never attained the notoriety or publicity of Scott or Shackleton and his achievements were largely forgotten until quite recently.

Recent reassessment of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition now recognise its importance as the foundation of modern climate change studies and William Speirs Bruce as a pioneer of Arctic and Antarctic research.

Bruce at the University

Later in life Bruce founded the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory in Nicolson Street, Edinburgh where he housed his specimens, scientific papers and meteorological and oceanographic equipment. Although the Laboratory closed in 1919, items from this archive can be found in the University’s Centre for Research Collections (CRC).

The CRC William Speirs Bruce collection contains some 1,000 volumes, 2,000-3,000 pamphlets and offprints, and 30 albums of pictures and news cuttings. The volumes include famous early 19th century travel accounts, annotated research publications and scientific reports.

Related links

Voyage of the Scotia 1902-04 - An online exhibition of photographs and related materials from the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition 1902-1904, highlighting the contribution to polar exploration and research made by Scotland and by William S Bruce, initiator and leader of the expedition.

CRC William Speirs Bruce collection