William Speirs Bruce and Autism

7 Aug

I have now spent some years reading, writing and thinking about Bruce. Bruce led an important Scottish expedition to Antarctica on his ship ‘Scotia’. Subsequently he spent years building up the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory in Edinburgh, which, he hoped would be a permanent national establishment. In addition he started the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate. The syndicate aimed to prospect for minerals in the Arctic and in this work he became thoroughly enmeshed in geopolitics as he petitioned the British Government to annex Spitsbergen

I have come to the conclusion that his (considerable) financial and logistical problems were exacerbated by the fact that he exhibited characteristics that today would be considered as part of the autistic spectrum. These characteristics significantly complicated his dealings with other people.

Autism is of course a wide field, but reasons for considering Bruce belonged in this field are:

Bruce’s loyal friend R.N Rudmose Brown (who wrote a biography of Bruce after his death, an appreciation of his many talents), wrote that even with him (Rudmose Brown), there was never a complete confidence: ‘There seemed to be a barrier that no man and certainly no woman ever crossed. He seldom if ever spoke of his family and childhood, rarely of his private concerns & never of his philosophy of life’.

Bruce clearly did have problems with social communications. His letter to his supporter, the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, Dr. Hugh Robert Mill, illustrates this. ‘I was intending to tell Mrs. Mill and yourself the other day that I was intending to marry, but when the time came it seemed even more difficult to say so than to reach the South Pole. Such is the case however andI should not like the event to take place without having told you’.

His poor communication skills would have made him irascible – he had quarrels through out his career and seems to have been unaware of the effect that his outspoken comments made on recipients. These quarrels could go on for years. A colleague from student days wrote that he was ‘as Prickly as the Scottish thistle itself’. Another long term associate and supporter (who regularly sent money to help the Bruce family out), wrote ‘I hear Bruce has had a row with Keltie. I do not know what about but I think it is a great pity that he should “fall out” with so many people. Even when one is slighted it is just as well to keep quiet. If a man is doing good work and he is respected he is bound to come out on top sooner than later’.

During his work he had ongoing problems with the British Government, which must have been worsened by his regular outspoken and written criticism of the government’s lack of support for his Scottish demands when compared with its comparative generosity to the English explorers Scott and Shackleton. The government’s refusal to annex Spitsbergen again promoted his public criticism. This, and his (politically unwise) harnessing of his demands to Scottish nationalist sympathies must have alienated the authorities and affected their response to his regular demands for financial backing.

He had scant insight into the demands of family life – even when he was ‘with’ the family he was not ‘in’ it. When he was at home he remained doggedly immersed in his current project, totally ignoring other demands on his time. He would spend days in his study, immersed in his work, ignoring the trays of food left outside the door. He was prepared to sail on his Antarctic expedition the ‘Scotia’ with no pay, apparently without thought of the effect on his wife, struggling to make ends meet, isolated from friends and family, and with a small baby. Although concerned about his children he spent little time with them. The marriage did not last.

Finally, he had a collecting mania. Apparently every scrap of paper he had ever received was in his office after his death!

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One Response to “William Speirs Bruce and Autism”

  1. Millard August 12, 2017 at 11:01 am #

    Always risky to diagnose in retrospect, but your account suggests that Bruce suffered from autism. It would be interesting to have the opinion of someone who is an expert in the condition. Interesting and amusing article in the Times (Aug 10th)about bringing up an autistic child. I will send a copy

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