|Marking the age of exploration|
|Thursday, 01 July 2010|
The College has unveiled a plaque to commemorate the Centenary of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. Heritage Manager Christopher Henry reveals the little-known connection between the RCSEd and the Society
There are few people these days who have not heard of Robert Falcon Scott, the intrepid explorer of the South Pole, whose tragic death in 1912 inspired so many. The period in which brave men ventured to the North and South poles at the beginning of the twentieth century was rightly called the Heroic Age of Exploration.
Pictured: Lady Elliot and members of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland unveil a plaque commemorating the 16 people who formally constituted the Zoological Society of Scotland on 18 March 1909
Scotland too had its own hero, less well-known but just as significant; William Spiers Bruce was a London-born Scottish naturalist, polar scientist and oceanographer who organised and led the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (1902–04) to the South Orkney Islands and the Weddell Sea. His ship the Scotia and his crew of 32 men made remarkable discoveries in Antarctica which were later overshadowed by those of Scott and Shackleton.
Bruce founded the Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory and it is that fact which brings him so closely into contact with the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh; the laboratory was located on the College site where the Quincentenary Hall now stands. From the Laboratory, Bruce researched and published on the fruits of his polar expeditions and planned new ones – between 1892 and 1920 he made two expeditions to the Antarctic and eleven to Arctic regions.
"Bruce researched and published on the fruits of his polar expeditions and planned new ones – between 1892 and 1920 he made two expeditions to the Antarctic and eleven to Arctic regions"
The lab served as a research centre, specimen repository, and museum of polar zoology and geology. The scientific specimens were collected on his various expeditions to Polar Regions, in particular the extensive collections from the Scottish National Antarctic (Scotia) Expedition 1902-1904. The building was known as the Forbes Laboratory and was a single storey, stone building and formed the northern boundary wall of the policies of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. The Laboratory was to be an institute for the study of the world’s oceans, in particular those of the Polar Regions. In 1923 Robert Rudmose Brown described it thus: ‘It was not an attractive building: low in the ceiling, with a sagging floor and ill-lit…The smell of the pickle factory was liable to penetrate to Bruce’s rooms, and the rumbling of heavy lorries in the yard shook the museum cases.’
Bruce took over the building from J Arthur Thomson, a Lecturer in Zoology in the School of Medicine. The main entrance was off Drummond Street but the College had opened a door into the Surgeons’ Hall courtyard. Once Bruce took over the building, although it ceased to have any formal association with the College, Bruce used Surgeons’ Hall as his postal address.
Spiers Bruce was heavily involved with the creation of the Scottish Zoological Society which was founded through the inspiration and determination of Thomas Haining Gillespie and Edinburgh solicitor James Anderson. From August 1907 until November 1908 they wrote scores of letters to people whom they thought may be interested in forming the Society. They were met with little enthusiasm. On 18 December 1908 a meeting was called for the few who had showed most interest in the formation of the Society. At this meeting Bruce was to propose the motion that ‘a Zoological Society be formed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining a national Zoological Park or Garden at Edinburgh.’ The idea was inspired by the Prince of Monaco, who at the time was building his great museum and laboratory of oceanography at Monaco with its allied teaching institution at Paris.
On 18 March 1909 the Society was formed. We know that some of the Council meetings were held in the laboratories of Bruce within the Surgeons’ Hall complex but there is no formal record. It is possible that the meeting on 18 March was in his laboratory. At a Council Meeting on 14 December 1909 Lord Salvesen was formally elected President of the Society.
The creation of the Society and Spiers Bruce’s involvement is an important historical facet of Scottish scientific endeavour and so members of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland wanted to commemorate these facts by erecting a plaque on the site of Bruce’s old laboratory.