Bruce | William Speirs | 1867-1921 | polar explorer and oceanographer

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

William Speirs Bruce (1867-1921) led the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition of 1902-1904, along with many other scientific expeditions to both Polar Regions of the world. Bruce studied at Norfolk County School, before reading medicine at the University of Edinburgh, but gave up his studies in 1892, before he qualified as a doctor, in order to take part in a whaling expedition to the oceans surrounding the Falklands. Though he was, officially, ship's surgeon, he spent most of his time sealing and making 2-hourly meteorological observations over a 3-month period - the evidence gained in these observations of the weather giving the first ever evidence of the Antarctic anticyclone.

For several years, Bruce perfected his scientific technique at the meteorological observatory on Ben Nevis. Then, over a periond of about 20 years, he made repeated visits to the arctic island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago, in association with the prince of Monaco. He became the major expert on the area, having carried out meteorological, zoological, geological and geographical surveys of the island. These led to the economic development of the archipelago, mainly for coal mining. Bruce also carried out ornithological work there, discovering new species of arctic bird, and discovering more about known species - he was, for example, the first to find chicks of the sanderling, on Spitsbergen.

The expedition for which he is remembered, however, is the remarkably successful Scottish National Antarctic Expedition of 1902-1904. The observations made by this expedition completely changed the way Antarctica was seen, from a geographical point of view, as well as the way the surrounding islands were seen from a zoological perspective. During this trip, a base was set up on South Georgia, a new area, Coats Land (named in honour of the Coats brothers, who had bankrolled the enterprise) was discovered and 1100 species of animal were catalogued, 212 of them previously unknown to science. The seas around the Antarctic were explored in the yacht 'Scotia'.

Bruce did not, however, always enjoy the good luck that made the Antarctic expedition such a success. In 1907, Bruce founded the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory, an organisation he had great ambitions for, hoping it would one day challenge Monaco as a centre for oceanographical sciences. However, it was not to be, and it was disbanded in 1920, the year before his death, due to his ill health, and the lack of other people of Bruce's stature to continue the work. In 1910-1911, Bruce tried to raise funds for a second Antarctic expedition, but this enterprise too would end in failure. A whaling business he managed in the Seychelles from 1914 failed too, killed off by the outbreak of war.

He was honoured by several learned societies for his work. He did not publish widely nor attempt to publicise his work, and it is perhaps this, along with the lack of spectacular upsets like those that dogged Scott and Shackleton's polar expeditions, that meant Bruce has been largely forgotten by the public.


Bruce was influenced by James Cossar Ewart at the University of Edinburgh (1851-1933). His Antarctic expedition was funded by the Coats brothers, textile manufacturers from Glasgow.

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

Report on the Scientific Results of the Voyage of S.Y. 'Scotia', 1902-1904, (c1909)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1904: Awarded Gold Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Association

1910: Awarded Patron's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society

1911: Awarded honorary Doctor of Laws (LL.D) degree, University of Aberdeen

1913: Awarded Neill Prize and Medal of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

1920: Awarded Livingstone Medal of the Hispanic Society of America


List of sources for the biographical information:

Royal Society of Edinburgh, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol XLII, (Edinburgh, Neill and Company, 1923)

Davis, HWC and Weaver, JRH, Dictionary of National Biography 1912-1921, (London, Oxford University Press, 1927)

Antarctic Explorers: William S. Bruce, (, Antarctic Philately, c1997)