WILLIAM SPEIRS BRUCE

25 Mar

I have spent a considerable amount of time in the past few years researching the life of William Speirs Bruce Polar, the naturalist and explorer of the late 1800s and early1900s. There is an immense (overwhelming), amount of information about him stored in various museums and libraries: The Royal Scottish Geographic Society, The National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh University Library, Glasgow Museum, The Scott Polar Research Institute, The Royal Geographic Society and more, yet hardly anyone has heard of Bruce, – even in Scotland where he lived and worked for thirty years.

In the late 1800s it was uncertain whether Antarctica actually existed – were the sightings that had been made of land in the region simply islands or part of the mythical continent? Bruce’s scientific findings on his original visit (as a junior naturalist and doctor in 1892) did much to stimulate ongoing interest in an area. His own expedition, the Scotia expedition really opened up the region for the first time. On Scotia he organised hundreds of ‘stations’ where, sometimes with great difficulty, scientists collected a vast amount of data about the ocean. For each station the ship was halted and sea depth, sea characteristics, trawl findings, drag net findings and comprehensive meteorological data was collected over a distance of hundreds and hundreds of miles. In addition the scientists studied the animals; fishes seals whales birds – and the expedition discovered land (Coats Land), which changed what was understood about the geography of the Weddell Sea. It was on this expedition that a meteorological station and magnetic observatory were set up in the South Orkneys. These stations continue today.

In addition he added much to knowledge about Spitsbergen and surrounding islands in the Arctic

So why is he so little remembered? He knew the answer himself. His expeditions were scientific, no deaths no dramas, no financial support from big, publicity blazing newspapers. He wrote that the public wanted ‘narratives bristling with hairbreadth escapes, and thrilling adventures’. On one occasion, when he was invited to address a SCIRNTIFIC society, the secretary wrote to give his opinion that possibly one the hardest athletic feats to be achieved, was to get to the North or South Pole. He (the secretary) added that ‘it would be quite suitable if one of our university athletic clubs would take up this piece of work. No greater fame could accrue to such a club than to record that they were the winners of the Polar Blue Ribbon. I should quite well like to see the athletic club of one of our universities in Scotland victorious in this regard’

If the Secretary of a scientific society could write this =what hope with the general public?

Was he an Antarctic Hero? A hero is defined as a person admired for their courage,
outstanding achievements or noble qualities, I don’t think he was noble, he did what he was driven to do, nothing could, or would stop him, but in terms of outstanding achievements, and his grit, courage, doggedness to keep going in spite of all set backs, I think he qualifies..

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One Response to “WILLIAM SPEIRS BRUCE”

  1. Robert Bratman March 31, 2016 at 10:53 am #

    Well done, Isobel! Having read your brief bit about Bruce, I feel that I should like to know more. I suppose you ran across him during your earlier research on Polar explorers. Cheers!

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