William Speirs Bruce was born in London to Scottish parentage. He studied natural science at Edinburgh University and went on to become the surgeon and naturalist on a whaling ship called the 'Balaena'. His scientific endeavours on that voyage were disappointing but he was enthused when the ship travelled to the Antarctic continent. This would inspire him to become one of the very earliest polar explorers.
Bruce now abandoned his medical studies and devoted himself to polar science. He worked at the high-level meteorological observatory on Ben Nevis in order to gain experience of working in sub-zero temperatures. From there he was invited to join the Jackson-Harmsworth expedition as its naturalist in its second year in Franz Josef Land (Zeml'a Franca-Iosifa). Here he collected numerous biological specimens and met the Norwegian Fridjof Nansen, who was returning from the Fram expedition. In 1898 he accompanied, as scientist, Major Andrew Coats in the Blencathra to Kolguyev, Novaya Zemlya, and the Barents Sea, and was then invited to sail with the prince of Monaco in the Princesse Alice, the finest of all oceanographic survey ships at that time, to Hope Island, Bear Island, and Spitsbergen. He returned with the prince to Spitsbergen in 1899 to survey Red Bay in the north of the archipelago.
At the turn of the century, Bruce was amongst the best-equipped and most experienced of all polar scientists in Britain. He had amassed a large collection of rocks and biological specimens, and was an experienced surveyor and a competent meteorologist. He offered his services in 1899 to Clements Markham, president of the Royal Geographical Society, who was organizing an Antarctic expedition. Markham proposed the naval officer Robert Falcon Scott over Bruce, so Bruce turned to the Scottish Geographical Society to fund an alternative expedition. The Scotia expedition set out from 1902 until 1904 and performed some notable scientific endeavours and explored much of the coastline.
The highly successful expedition returned to Scotland with large scientific collections which formed the basis of the Scottish Oceanographical Institute, founded by Bruce in Edinburgh in 1907. Seven volumes of scientific reports from the Scotia expedition were published between 1907 and 1919.
Bruce returned to Spitsbergen in 1906 and 1907, and was instrumental in founding a mineral exploration company, the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate, in 1909. He was again in Spitsbergen in 1912, 1914, 1919, and 1920, and made a vain effort to raise a second expedition to Antarctica in 1910-11. The Oceanographical Institute closed in 1919 through lack of funds, but by this time Bruce's health was failing, and he died on 28 October 1921 in Liberton Hospital, Morningside, Edinburgh. He was cremated in Glasgow and his ashes scattered, according to his wishes, off South Georgia in the south Atlantic on 2 April 1923. He never, however, achieved the fame of other contemporary polar explorers of the heroic age of polar exploration. He was more interested in science than heroic endeavours and was more than happy to defer the latter to those who wished to pursue it. He was more interested in conducting scientific experiments and observations.