William Speirs Bruce - Forgotten Polar Hero

By: John Dudeney

William Speirs Bruce Antarctic explorer SNAE

William Speirs Bruce (1867-1921) was a very different person from the well-known ‘greats’ of the heroic era: Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen. As a result, he is largely forgotten even though his lasting legacy is as great, if not greater, than that of his contemporaries. He was one of the outstanding polar scientists of his age, even though he never actually completed his university education.

He made two voyages to Antarctica, the first in 1893, as ship’s surgeon aboard the Balena as part of an exploratory whaling expedition, second as leader of his own expedition - the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (SNAE) of 1902 to 1904.  

He also took part in 11 expeditions to the Arctic as scientist and mineral prospector, leading 6 of them. He established and directed the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory in Edinburgh, though sadly he was forced to close it in 1919 due to lack of funds. He also set up the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate – a mineral exploration company – in an attempt to establish a commercial mining business in Spitsbergen. Over the years it built up a considerable holding of mineral rights in Spitsbergen, and was quoted on the stock exchange,  but it never actually mined anything and was finally wound up some years after Bruce had died.

He received many honours in his lifetime, including the Patrons medal from the Royal Geographic Society, the Gold medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and an honorary doctorate from the University of Aberdeen. But his great disappointment was that SNAE was not honoured by the award of the Polar Medal even though all the other British and Imperial expeditions of the Heroic Era (those of Scott, Shackleton, and Mawson) were so honoured.  

His achievements were many and varied spanning geographical discovery, science, and geopolitical legacy.  Just a few examples demonstrate this. On the Balena expedition, he collected sedimentary rocks from the seabed and realised that these suggested an Antarctic land mass. On the SNAE, in the Weddell Sea where he did much of his scientific work, he went on to discover land which he named Coates Land (after his sponsor).  

This was a most important geographical discovery, which demonstrated that the Southern continent extended 500 miles further equatorward in the Atlantic sector than had previously been known. On this expedition, he carried out comprehensive oceanographical and meteorological observations in the Scotia (named after the expedition ship of SNAE) and Weddell seas.

Although his first love was oceanography and meteorology, he also made major contributions to understanding the biology of both polar regions. But perhaps his most enduring legacy, both scientific and geopolitical, was his decision to offer the research facilities that he had set up in 1903 on Laurie Island in the South Orkneys to the Argentine Meteorological Service.

Although his first love was oceanography and meteorology, he also made major contributions to understanding the biology of both polar regions.

There were two profound consequences of this. The first was geopolitical. It is from this act that the continuing dispute between Britain and Argentina over territorial claims to Antarctica stems claims only put on hold by the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959.  The second and much more positive consequence is that Argentina has maintained the station - now known as Orcardes Station - as an operational scientific research station since 1904. As a result, it is the longest running Antarctic station by far, an outcome of which Bruce would have been very proud.

There is a myth that he only offered the station to Argentina because the British Government refused to provide funds to keep it running. This is false. There is no evidence that he ever approached them for support.

He was a polar scientist ahead of his time. He recognised the scientific need to have coordinated networks of stations which operated for the long term and realised that Argentina would be a country that would benefit greatly from such a network in the South Atlantic, something which the Argentine Met service was keen to establish.  Seen in that light, his choice of Argentina makes great sense.

Given such achievements, why is Bruce largely forgotten today? There are several strands to this. Firstly, he was driven to do science, it was his abiding priority. He would not write a popular account of his expedition that would have made him a household name, even though he was urged to by Shackleton. All his energies went into publishing his science and protecting his cherished laboratory.

Secondly, and unfortunately, he lacked social empathy and social integration skills. He had an obsessive personality, lacked tact, took offence easily and never forgave real or imagined slights. Whilst he was highly respected by many, he had no close friends, and, with only one exception, was never on first name terms with even his closest and long-term colleagues and supporters. It is probable that if he had lived today he would have been diagnosed as in the autistic spectrum.

Thirdly, although bought up in a well to do family in London, he moved to Edinburgh when he was 19 and grew over the years to become an outspoken Scottish Nationalist. He criticised the British Government for what he saw as their “English” bias, never understanding that when they were prepared to support polar work - which they did reluctantly - their priority was to support British or Imperial endeavours, not regional ones. In short he was, unlike Scott and Shackleton, not clubbable and made no attempt to hide his contempt for the English establishment.

It might have been him, instead of Shackleton, who led the famous attempt to cross the Continent from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea.

Had he taken a more inclusive approach it might have been him, instead of Shackleton, who led the famous attempt to cross the Continent from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea. He actually proposed the idea to the British Government in 1909, before Shackleton.

A myth prevails that Bruce was turned down when he applied to be a member of the Discovery Expedition. This is not true, he was offered a place by Sir Clements Markham (then president of the Royal Geographical Society and organiser of that expedition) but had already decided to lead his own expedition. But they did have a somewhat rancorous exchange of letters which deeply affected Bruce to the extent that he believed for the rest of his life that Markham played an active and malignant role in frustrating his career.  

There is actually no evidence that this was the case, but Bruce always believed that the reason the SNAE was not honoured by the award of the Polar Medal was because of Markham. Markham had no role, formal or informal, in the choice of recipients.

It was in the gift of the First Sea Lord to make recommendations to the King because it was instituted in 1904 as a Naval award to mark the return of the Discovery Expedition, and was limited to only expeditions funded or sponsored by the Government. SNAE, as an entirely privately funded undertaking, simply was not eligible. It was only some years later after Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition was awarded the medal, that Bruce was moved in 1910 to petition the Government to give the award to SNAE.  

The government thought the case strong and proposed twice to the King that the award should be made. The first time was in 1910, the second in 1913. Both were unsuccessful simply because the King was not prepared to revisit the question of ‘old’ expeditions, lest it open the floodgates. The attempt in 2002 by the Scottish Parliament to get the expedition the medal to mark its centenary failed for the same reason.

Bruce died relatively young – only 54 – and by that time he was estranged from his wife and two children. It appears that he had a breakdown and subsequently died of ‘softening of the brain’.  His ashes were scattered in the Southern Ocean.

It is time that his achievements are recognised and honoured in the same way that Scott and Shackleton are revered today. As a step to fostering that, the British Antarctic Survey in collaboration with the Scottish Government has named their research laboratory in the South Orkney Islands in his honour.

There is also a new biography aptly named William Speirs Bruce, Forgotten Polar Hero, by Isobel Williams and John Dudeney, which was published by Amberley Publishing in 2018. There are numerous statues immortalising Scott and Shackleton, but not one for Bruce. It is time that this lack was corrected.

William Speirs Bruce Forgotton Polar Hero book Antarctic explorer

You can find the book “William Speirs Bruce, Forgotten Polar Hero” at Amberley Publishing, Amazon, and Amazon UK

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