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William Speirs Bruce lived from 1 August 1867 to 28 October 1921. He was a polar scientist and oceanographer who organised and led the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition from 1902 to 1904. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
William Speirs Bruce was born in London, the son of a Scottish doctor, Samuel Noble Bruce and his Welsh wife Mary, née Lloyd. He was educated in Norfolk, and in 1887 was accepted to study medicine at University College London. He spent that summer studying natural science at the Scottish Marine Station at Granton in Edinburgh. Bruce subsequently abandoned his plans to study in London and instead became a medical student at the University of Edinburgh: while spending much of his time exploring his new found love of oceanography.
In 1892-3 Bruce made his first trip to the Antarctic as part of the Dundee Whaling Expedition, abandoning his studies at Edinburgh in order to do so. This was scientifically unsuccessful, but gave Bruce a lasting enthusiasm for polar exploration. He spent part of 1895 and 1896 working at the summit observatory on Ben Nevis, then joined an expedition exploring Franz Josef Land in the Arctic. Further voyages to Novaya Zemlya and Spitsbergen followed.
In 1899 Bruce sought a place on the National Antarctic Expedition (the Discovery Expedition). This was not forthcoming, and Bruce's proposal to add a second ship to the expedition using funds he had been promised by the Coates family of Paisley was seen by Sir Clements Markham of the National Geographical Society as a hostile act designed to undermine their own expedition. Bruce went it alone and what became the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition duly sailed from Troon on 2 November 1902, and over the following 21 months the Scotia and her crew undertook a wide range of important scientific work. This included the collection of data now seen as the beginnings of the study of climate change, and the establishment of a permanent weather station in the South Orkneys: which still operates today.
Bruce's later proposals for Antarctic expeditions tended to fail through lack of backing from bodies such as the Royal Geographical Society in London, and Bruce held the lifelong view that his plans were being deliberately thwarted by the enmity of Sir Clements Markham. This view is supported by the withholding from Bruce and any other member of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition of the prestigious Polar Medal, awarded by the Sovereign on the recommendation of the National Geographical Society.
In 1912 Bruce became involved in efforts to extract coal and oil in Spitsbergen, but these were thwarted by the outbreak of war in 1914. After a last trip to Spitsbergen in 1920, Bruce died in Edinburgh the following year. On 4 November 2002 a motion was tabled in the Scottish Parliament calling for William Speirs Bruce to be posthumously award of the Polar Medal: but to no effect.