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    William Spiers Bruce

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0163                                                                                                                  

    (R. N. Rudmose Brown)


            William Spiers Bruce (1867-1921), arctic and antarctic explorer and

    naturalist, was born in London on August 1, 1867, the fourth child and elder

    son of Dr. Samuel Noble Bruce. On his father's side he was of Scottish an–

    cestry with a strong Norse strain. Bruce's school days were not noteworthy

    until at the age of seventeen he attended a vacation course at Granton and

    came under the inspiring influence of Patrick Geddes. This led to his enter–

    ing on the study of medicine at Edinburgh and devoting some time to work in

    the Challenger office under Dr. (later Sir) John Murray. In 1892-93 he seized

    the chance of visiting the Antarctic as "surgeon" and naturalist in the whaler

    Balaena. A little collecting and a few observations were possible but the

    expedition was purely commercial in aim. A vivid account was written by W. G.

    Burn Murdoch in From Edinburgh to the Antarctic, 1894. Efforts to return to

    the Antarctic being for the time fruitless, Bruce, in 1895, took charge of the

    observatory on Ben Nevis (4,406 feet) in Scotland and so approached his ideal

    of polar solitude. The following year, at four days' notice, he sailed in the

    Windward as a naturalist to join the staff of the Jackson-Harmsworth expedition

    in Franz Josef Land. On his arrival at Cape Flora, Jackson's base, he met F.

    Nansen, who along with H. Johansen had recently been found in Franz Josef Land

    after their wintering subsequent to their long journey over the arctic pack ice.

    Bruce returned from the north with the expedition the following year. His zoolog–

    ical work had been useful but restricted by lack of opportunity and want of

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    EA-Biography. Rudmose Brown: William Spiers Bruce

    apparatus and means of preserving specimens. Bruce's interests were now, if

    not earlier, definitely centered on polar regions and he lost no chance of re–

    turning north.

            In 1898, taking the place of H. R. Mill who was prevented by other work

    from sailing, Bruce joined Andrew Coats' yacht Blancathra for a summer cruise

    in the Barents Sea. The cruise was primarily a hunting trip but Bruce made

    collections and took meteorological observations over a short period. Landings

    on Kolguev and Novaya Zemlya were useful but added little to geographical know–

    ledge. Weather prevented landings on the Wiche Islands, Hope Island, and Bear

    Island, and ice barred the way to Storfjord on the east of Spitsbergen. On the

    way home Bruce found at Tromeö the Prince of Monaco's steam yacht Princess Alice

    on her way to arctic waters, and he eagerly accepted the Prince's offer to accom–

    pany him. While the early summer of that year had been unfavorable, the latter

    part proved to be singularly open and free from ice around Spitsbergen. Land–

    ings were made at Bear Island (Björnoya) and the little known Hope Island (Hopen)

    before the Princess Alice steamed to the head of Storfjord, making some correc–

    tions to the chart. Visits were then made to west coast bays but the chief work

    was an oceanographical cruise to the northwest as far as the pack ice allowed.

    The work was in the hands of several well-known oceanographers, J. Y. Buchanan

    of the Challenger, K. Brandt of Kiel, and J. Richard of Monaco, besides the Prince


            In 1899 the Prince again invited Bruce to accompany him on an oceanographical

    cruise to Spitsbergen where he hoped to make a detailed bathymetrical survey of

    Liefde Bay on the north coast. Pack ice entailed a change in program and Red

    Bay (Randfjorden), lying farther west, had to be chosen. The survey of this bay

    and adjacent areas was practically finished when the Princess Alice ran onto an

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    EA-Biography. Rudmose Brown: William Spiers Bruce

    uncharted rock off Point Bruce. She was refloated after preparations for a

    shore wintering had been made, and returned to dock at Havre.

            After several attempts to revisit the Antarctic, Bruce organized the Scott–

    ish National Antarctic expedition in the Scotia in 1902. This expedition ex–

    plored the Weddel and Scotia seas, discovered Coats Land, and wintered at the

    South Orkneys. Its results in biology and oceanography were particularly valu–

    able. On his return Bruce was busy for a few years arranging and editing his

    results. With the assent of the Coats family, who had been strong supporters

    of the expedition, Bruce offered the Scotia to the Carnegie Trust for the univers–

    ities of Scotland to be used in training oceanographers. The offer was refused.

            It was not until 1906 that Bruce turned north again when the Prince of

    Monaco invited him to come to Spitsbergen with the suggestion that Bruce should

    lead his own party and undertake a distinctive piece of work. He chose as his

    field the almost unexplored Prince Charles Foreland, a large island on the west

    of Spitsbergen. Known from the discovery of Spitsbergen in 1596, it had seldom

    been visited when Bruce with G. Kerr and E. A. Miller set up his base camp near

    the northern end. A full summer was spent in surveying and collecting. The work

    was resumed the next year, Bruce then having with him G. Kerr, S. Rose, and J. V.

    Burn Murdoch. The weather proved exceptionally bad even for the Foreland, which

    is notorious for its mist, rain, and gales, but the survey, especially of the

    lowlying areas of the Foreland, made good progress. The Princess Alice having

    to go south early, the relief of Bruce's party was entrusted to, and carried out

    by, another vessel, a state of affairs that led to alarmist tales of disaster.

    On the way home, Bruce met, in Norway, the Duke of Orleans, who had heard that

    Bruce was lost.

            The work on the Foreland was not finished and Bruce was anxious to return.

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    EA-Biography. Rudmose Brown: William Spiers Bruce

    At this time, moreover, there was much talk of the mineral wealth, especially

    of the coal, of Spitsbergen. Bruce had seen something of this and the Princess

    had actually used some Spitsbergen coal. With the twofold objective of

    finishing the Foreland survey and of acquiring coal bearing estates in this No

    Man's Land that Spitsbergen then was, Bruce organized the Scottish Arctic ex–

    pedition in the Conqueror (Captain F. B. Napier) in 1909. With him were also

    J. Mathieson, J. V. Burn Murdoch, R. N. Rudmose Brown, A. Geddes, and others.

    Much work was done on the Foreland and the district at the head of Icefjord

    around Klaas Billen Bay, and Bruce made a transverse of Spitsbergen from Sassen

    Bay to Storfjord.

            After this effort he revived the project of a new Antarctic expediton

    to cross the continent from the Weddell to the Ross Sea but all attempts to

    find wealthy patrons failed. Bruce then turned again to Spitsbergen and in the

    summers of 1912 and 1914 took small expeditions north but they were unable to

    achieve much. In those years Bruce's efforts to found a polar center in Scotland,

    reflecting perhaps the fame of the Challenger Office at Granton, absorbed much

    of his energy. The Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory in Edinburgh was a pri–

    vate undertaking with no endowment or any funds beyond what Bruce could find. It

    held extensive collections of polar charts, books, and biological specimens, as

    well as much polar gear which was freely lent to many expeditions both to north

    and south.

            It was an ambitious project and was opened with much promise in January,

    1907, by H. S. H. the Prince of Monaco. Bruce hoped to emulate the Prince in

    placing his Laboratory, as the Prince had done with his great oceanographical

    museum in Monaco, under a trust for all time. Bruce was a member of that Monaco

    Trust. The First World War put a check on Bruce's dreams and, knowing that polar

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    EA-Biography. Rudmose Brown: William Spiers Bruce

    work was unlikely for some time, he accepted, in 1915, an offer of a whaling

    company to investigate the whale fisheries based on the Seychelles Islands. He

    found it to be a trying task not greatly to his liking and he was glad to re–

    turn home in the following year. In 1916 he hoped that his services would be

    accepted in the rescue of Shackleton's Endurance , missing in the Weddell Sea, but

    Shackleton himself emerged successfully from his ordeal without help. As the

    war went on Bruce saw no hope of maintaining his Scottish Oceanographical Labor–

    atory. Moreover, failing health added to his burden. Most reluctantly he closed

    his laboratory, giving the books, charts, gear, and specimens to various Edin–

    burgh institutions.

            After the World War I there was a boom in S itsbergen mining prospects which

    resulted in 1919 in Bruce being given charge, by the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate

    of Edinburgh, of a large prospecting and exploring expedition in the Petunia

    (Captain F. B. Napier). Bruce was also insistent on the strategic value of

    Spitsbergen and deplored that a base so potentially important with coal and

    deep-water harbors should be left unclaimed by Britain. Events in the recent

    world war proved him to be right. The well-equipped expedition made extensive

    topographical and geological surveys and located new coal fields. In 1920 Bruce

    made his last voyage to Spitsbergen but only as a passenger in the Easonian, one

    of the syndicate's vessels.

            In his many visits to Spitsbergen Bruce became well acquainted with most

    coasts of the island group and had an intimate knowledge of the mountainous Fore–

    land. He was an expert in the difficult task of summer traveling in a land snow–

    free at lower levels and scored by glacial torrents and moraine debris. Bruce

    also was a firm believer in living off the land. Both north and south his ex–

    pedition lived on seals, birds, and fish. Hardly any bird was rejected in prefer-

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    EA-Biography. Rudmose Brown: William Spiers Bruce

    ence to preserved food, which was carried only as an emergency ration. Bruce's

    map of Prince Charles Foreland, havinb been accidentally delayed for some years,

    was published in 1913 by the Prince of Monaco. Maps of the Klass Billen and

    Sassen areas were chiefly the work of J. Mathieson as far as actual field work

    went. Among Bruce's other interests was the early history of antarctic sealers

    and their discoveries; he was also engaged in revising the Admiralty Sailing


            Bruce died in Edinburgh on October 28th, 1921. By his will he had directed

    that his ashes should be scattered on the South Atlantic in a high southern lati–

    tude, preferably between longitude 10° and 15° E. "where it is important that in

    future an Antarctic landing should be attempted." The spirit of Bruce's wishes

    was complied with on April 2nd, 1923, by the British Magistrate at South Georgia.

    All his lifetime Bruce shirked publicity and had no ambitions except in his polar

    work and his enthusiasm for Scottish renaissance. His shyness and reticence pre–

    vented his being known by a wide public; he never lectured if he could avoid it.

    Among the honors conferred on him were the gold medal of the Royal Scottish Geo–

    graphical Society, the Patron's medal of the Royal Geographical Society, the Liv–

    ingstone Medal of the American Geographical Society, and the honorary [ ?] LL.D.

    of the University of Aberdeen. Bruce married in 1901, Jessie, daughter of Alex–

    ander Mackenzie of Nigg, Ross-shire, and had a son and a daughter. The son went

    into the British Mercant Navy.

            Bruce's chief published work is to be found in the volumes of the Scientific

    Results of the Voyage of S. Y. Scotia
    , 1902-04, the Scottish Geographical Magazine ,

    and a small volume entitled Polar Exploration (1911). His life by R. N. Rudmose–

    Brown, appeared as A Naturalist at the Poles (1923). See also The Voyage of the

    , by Three of the Staff, (1906).


    R. N. Rudmose Brown

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