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John Ronald Bruce

Epithet: Marine biologist and local antiquarian (1894-1986)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

J.R. Bruce (he was usually addressed as `Mr Bruce' or, by close associates, as 'Bruce') came to the Isle of Man in 1913 as a young student on a course at the Marine Biological Station (later the Port Erin Marine Laboratory). This stimulated his interest in marine biology and initiated his enthusiasm for the Island and its archaeology. He and his future wife were both students at Liverpool University. Laura Davies was born in Birkenhead on 11th September 1895; her father was William Thomas Davies, a tailor, and her mother was Helena Christian (1864-1943) who was born in Kirk Michael (parents Jonas Christian and Eleanor Cannan, both of Kirk Michael). Bruce and Laura Davies were married in 1922 and their three sons were all born in the Isle of Man and all pursued successful careers, Alan to some extent following in his father's footsteps in that he became a research scientist with the Admiralty and had a keen interest in archaeology.

J.R. Bruce's father, also John Bruce, was born in West Derby. He was a solicitor's clerk, later solicitor's manager and solicitor to the Alexandra Towing Company. His mother Mary was also born in West Derby. Both parents retired to live out their final years in Port Erin where they died aged 75 and 87 respectively.

From Wallasey Grammar School, where he was awarded a Wallasey Borough Scholarship, J.R. Bruce entered the University of Liverpool in October 1912. He graduated BSc. with Honours in botany in July 1915 and MSc. in chemistry in July 1918. He became an Associate of the Institute of Chemistry (now incorporated into the Royal Society for Chemistry) in October 1918. From 1919-21 he undertook research in chemistry at the University of Liverpool at which time he held the Johnstone Colonial Fellowship in biochemistry.

He was appointed a member of staff of Liverpool University's Marine Biological Station at Port Erin in 1921. He was initially appointed as naturalist in charge, later becoming acting director, then deputy director from 1950 until his retirement in 1960. He carried out distinguished work on a number of topics including the physiochemical properties and fauna of sandy beaches as well as aspects of the biochemistry and physiology of marine organisms, publishing his results in internationally renowned journals such as the 'British Journal of Experimental Biology', the 'Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom' and the 'Biochemical Journal'. A long-term task he undertook was the collection of new faunal records, all of which were entered into a meticulously annotated copy of the first edition of the Manx Marine Fauna. These were subsequently incorporated into the new definitive second edition which was written in collaboration with J.S. Colman and N.S. Jones and published by the Liverpool University Press in 1963.

Bruce had a lifelong interest in archaeology and was active in this field in the Isle of Man, accounts of his work appearing in the 'Proceedings of the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society' and the 'Journal of the Manx Museum'. Significant publications also included the report, with William Cubbon in 'Archaelogia Cambrensis', 1930, on the excavation at Cronk ny How and that in 'Manx Archaeological Survey', 1984, on 'Keeills and Burial Grounds in the Sheading of Rushen', which completed the survey initiated by Philip Moore Callow Kermode in 1909 and whose report on the other five Sheadings was finished in 1936. Bruce was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in March 1968.

J.R. Bruce was associated with the Manx Museum from the very beginning, initially assisting P.M.C. Kermode, the first director, to catalogue the collection. He served as a trustee for some 40 years during which time he became vice chairman (1962-76) and also chairman of the Cregneash Folk Museum Committee.

From 1921 onwards he was an active member of the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society and president during the year 1927/1928. He was elected an honorary member 'in recognition of his outstanding contributions to Manx scholarship and the work of the Society'.

Bruce was a long-term member of the Port Erin branch of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and was awarded a Record of Thanks in November 1945, at which time he was chairman of the committee.

During World War I Bruce and his wife-to-be were employed as works' chemists at a munitions factory in North Wales. In World War II he remained on the Island and, although a pacifist by conviction, became a lieutenant in the Home Guard. At this time he came into contact with Professor Gerhard Bersu, an internationally renowned archaeologist who was interned at Port Erin. Bersu was allowed to undertake archaeological activities during his internment and this gave Bruce the opportunity to observe him at work; he subsequently edited part of the report on the Viking ship burial at Balladoole. Runway constructions at Ronaldsway brought to light a Neolithic site which was immediately excavated by Bruce and Eleanor Mary Megaw with characteristic care and attention to detail, all within the allotted time span of six weeks. Scientific work continued, albeit at a reduced level, at the Marine Biological Station during World War II and Bruce collaborated with other workers on, for example, the rearing of oyster larvae and other topics.

Bruce was a deeply religious man, regularly attending services at St Catherine's Church in Port Erin. He was recognised as a pillar of the church, serving as a sidesman, teaching in Sunday School and supporting other activities. His name was associated with two pamphlets on the history of St Catherine's Church, noteworthy in that they were published 50 years apart when the church celebrated its Golden Jubilee (1930) and centenary (1980).

Following retirement and the death of his wife, Bruce devoted his energies to work on the Rushen keeills. After attempting to come to terms with the motor car he decided that motoring was not for him and continued to carry out field work as he always had done - on foot and using public transport where this was available. He was always willing to help others and was friend and mentor to many students who passed through the Marine Biological Station. He organised educational classes for local people and the wartime internees, gave talks to Island societies and led field excursions for the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society.

He has been described as a good speaker, economical with words and with a nice turn of phrase. He was not, however, politically motivated and turned down a suggestion that he should stand for the local commissioners. J.R. Bruce was a reticent, unassuming, true gentleman.

What must have been a very full life came to an end in July 1986 when he died at the age of 91. He was buried in Rushen Parish Churchyard. His obituary in the Proceedings of the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society concludes that 'he was recognised as an outstanding scientist and antiquary in the Isle of Man for over half a century'.

Biography written by John D. Slinn.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.34-6.)

Culture Vannin


Nationality: English

Gender: Male

Date of birth: 5 December 1894

Date of death: 27 July 1986

Name Variant: MSc Bruce


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