Autism and Bruce

30 Aug

A colleague has sent me an excerpt from an article in ‘The Times’ written by Kathy Lette regarding autism. Kathy’s son has autism, which she summarises as an inability to socialise, a chronic obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety, linked often, with a high I.Q. Kathy makes the point that autistic people often have abilities which may not be apparent and her advice is ‘feed their passions, as you never know where it might lead’.

A friend of mine also has a son with autistic characteristics. She comments that autistic people seem to think differently from the norm – it is certainly well known that they often speak without a filter, saying precisely what they are thinking, with little insight into the effects of their comments,so making social situations a minefield. Poor communication can result in misunderstandings and irascibility on both sides

In relation to Bruce; socialisation was not his forte. His friend Rudmose Brown, a loyal friend of many years, admitted this in his book on Bruce that aimed to bring Bruce to the attention of the wider world. Rudmose Brown wrote that even he, with all his loyalty and sympathy could not truly penetrate Bruce’s reticence and reserve. Bruce never fully confided in him and that: ‘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, and never of his philosophy of life’. This seems to me very suggestive of an autistic trait. Bruce never invited friends to his home, his wife Jessie, became increasingly isolated, separated from family and friends and with insufficient funds. When Bruce actually was at home, his granddaughter understands that he would bury himself in his study, ignoring trays of food left outside his door, compulsively immersed in his work. He was with his family, but not in it.

He was certainly obsessive, perhaps he needed to be, the work of his Scottish Oceanograpghical Laboratory was overwhelming, Thousands of specimens from his voyage to the Weddell Sea had to be sorted, described, reported, sent to experts in the United Kingdom and Europe and amalgamated into seven hefty volumes (six scientific). His laboratory became his home as he laboured for years with his magnum opus. He had no time for anything but his work.

He could well have been anxious He certainly could be irritable. His friend and admirer the meteorologist Mossman 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’. Neither was Bruce reserved about recording his irritation in print without pause for consideration of the effects of his comments – as a young naturalist his anger was aroused by a review of his friend, Burn Murdoch’s account of a whaling voyage to the Antarctic. Bruce wrote provocatively and to no less a person than the Editor of ‘Natural Science’, saying that he agreed with Burn Murdoch that science should be for everyone and he supported his friend’s comment that it was a hideous marvel that though Dundonians had shown enterprise in sending four ships to the Antarctic, they had shown a total disregard for the scientific possibilities of such a cruise, (this, predictably, met with an ‘anything but a friendly reception in Dundee seafaring circles’).

Again, on reviewing Admiralty maps of an Arctic island he published–‘I find more or less a definite map of the island but, on inspection I found this to be, as I expected, little more than a conglomeration of a series of indefinite sketches, all inaccurate but each one less inaccurate than the resulting conglomerate’.

Commenting on ‘rivalry’ between the Royal Geographic Society and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society he wrote ‘I did not know that there was this rivalry between the London and Scottish Societies, which caused them either to try or prevent the other getting geographical information. It is scarcely in the scientific spirit’.

Such comments must have been counter productive, antagonising those he wished to influence, but Bruce could not see this – he lacked insight. His situation was made worse because he was looking for support at the same time as Scott and Shackleton, both men of charm and persuasion and both moreover, able to contact people of influence. These were lines of approach not open to Bruce.

It is always difficult to make a diagnosis retrospectively but I think the evidence suggests that Bruce displayed a strong autistic tendency that prejudiced his reputation and reduced recognition with regard to his considerable achievements. He might have achieved more if he had not had these traits and had been able to get on better with other people – alternatively, there is a fine line between being single minded and being obsessive and it can be argued that he might not have achieved anything without an autistic streak which lead to his obsession, and his scientific successes.

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