Scots Polar explorer ‘overlooked because of autism’

William S Bruce with the crew of the Scotia, flying the expedition saltire - part of the recently discovered collection of pictures taken during the William Speirs Bruce Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, and their vessel "Scotia".  Pictures now in Royal Scottish Georgraphical Society archive.
William S Bruce with the crew of the Scotia, flying the expedition saltire - part of the recently discovered collection of pictures taken during the William Speirs Bruce Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, and their vessel "Scotia". Pictures now in Royal Scottish Georgraphical Society archive.
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A Scottish polar explorer who has been largely forgotten 
by history may have been 
overlooked because he was on the autistic spectrum, a new book about his life has concluded.

A Scottish polar explorer who has been largely forgotten by history may have been overlooked because he was on the autistic spectrum, a new book about his life has concluded.

The authors claim that the enormous contribution of William Speirs Bruce to polar science has been “completely lost” as he failed to pursue publicity like Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton.

In their newly published work, they argue that Bruce was a “poor communicator and a man of reticence” who also alienated his peers through his “obstinate Scottish nationalism”.

Born in 1867, Bruce organised and led the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition of 1902-4, where he set up what would become the region’s longest running meteorological research station.

Also known as the Scotia expedition after the name of its research ship, Bruce and his colleagues discovered new land, charted Arctic islands and took extensive oceanographic records.

However, he never wrote a popular account of the exhibition in the same way as Shackleton and Captain Scott and has never enjoyed the same fame during his lifetime or afterwards.

The book William Speirs Bruce: Forgotten Polar Hero, by Isobel P Williams and John Dudeney, argues that much of his failure to be recognised was down to his difficult nature.

“It’s very sad, given how important Bruce was in polar affairs, that he’s been completely lost under the shining light of two or three stars who don’t really deserve it,” Dr Dudeney said.

“His personality stood against him quite a lot. We speculate – although it is educated speculation – he was probably autistic.

“He was certainly a very difficult man. I don’t think he had much tact.”

Bruce frequently butted heads with the British establishment and was a committed Scottish nationalist, being described by one friend as “prickly as the Scottish thistle itself”.

Dr Dudeney said: “He would often in his letters rail against the English establishment, and the English standing in the way of the Scots.

“He saw both Scott’s expeditions and Shackleton’s expeditions as English. Bruce always saw it that the Scots were being downtrodden.”

He also held a grudge against Sir Clements Markham, the president of the Royal Geographical Society, who he believed had intervened to prevent him from winning the Polar Medal.