David Bruce was born at Melbourne and went to school in Scotland, at Stirling High School. He was sent into a Manchester warehouse at the age of fourteen, and only a severe attack of pneumonia was responsible for his entry into Edinburgh University in 1876. As a student, he displayed a keen interest in ornithology. After he had taken his medical degree in 1881, a short period of private practice at Reigate intervened before he joined the Army in 1883 as a surgeon. Passing out of Netley at the head of the list, he was posted to Malta, where he soon achieved fame in the scientific world by identifying in 1886 the organism responsible for Malta fever, now known as Brucella melitensis. He also conducted a useful enquiry into the causes of an epidemic of cholera on the island in 1887. Two years later he returned to Netley for a five-year term as assistant professor of pathology.
Bruce’s next opportunity for scientific research occurred after his transfer to South Africa in 1894. In the following year he was sent to Zululand to investigate an outbreak of the cattle disease known as nagana. His subsequent discovery that the tsetse fly, Glossina morsitans, was the carrier of a living organism, Trypanosoma brucei, from one animal to another, was of the utmost significance. In 1898 Bruce went on to study horse sickness in Natal. But, after the outbreak of the Boer War, he was for a time involved in military operations, being present at several actions and receiving special promotion to lieutenant-colonel for his services at the siege of Ladysmith. Then, in 1900, he joined a commission investigating dysentery in military camps.
In 1903 Bruce made another major discovery when he visited Uganda, under the Royal Society’s auspices, to follow up Castellani’s observations on sleeping sickness. He established that the disease was caused by a trypanosome spread by the bite of the tsetse fly, Glossina palpalis, and initiated a successful policy of evacuation of natives from infected areas. His next tasks were the direction of further Royal Society commissions. From 1904 to 1906 he extended his researches on Malta fever, and from 1908 to 1910 those on sleeping sickness. From 1911 to 1914 he worked in Nyasaland to establish that wild game was the main, if not the only, source from which the tsetse fly drew its infectivity, and conducted further enquiries into trypanosomes. He was also, from 1902 to 1911, a member of the Army Medical Service Advisory Board. In 1914 he returned to England to assume command of the Royal Army Medical College, Netley, which he retained for the duration of the War. He rendered valuable service in collating medical statistics and as chairman of the War Office Pathological Committee and its committees on trench fever and tetanus, being a powerful advocate of anti-tetanic serum. On retiring from the army as a major-general in 1919, he became chairman of the governing body of the Lister Institute.
Bruce, who published his scientific findings in no less than 97 articles as well as editing the Journal of the R.A.M.C. between 1904 and 1908, was the recipient of numerous honours in the course of his career. In addition to his honorary degrees he was awarded the Cameron prize of Edinburgh University in 1901, the Royal Society’s Royal Medal in 1904, the Mary Kingsley medal in 1905, the Stewart prize of the B.M.A. in 1908, and the Leeuwenhoek gold medal of Amsterdam in 1915; and he was elected a member of many foreign learned societies. He was Croonian Lecturer at the Royal College of Physicians in 1915. He received the honour of C.B. in 1905 and a knighthood in 1908 and was raised to be K.C.B. in 1918.
In his youth, Bruce had been an excellent boxer and he was always a commanding, incisive figure, inclined to be brusque if not intolerant in his later years. He owed his success to a constructive imagination amounting almost to intuition, which enabled him to seize every opportunity, select the most direct line in advance, and avoid false trails. But he owed it equally to his wife, Mary Elizabeth, daughter of Dr Steele of Reigate, his partner in every scientific venture for forty-eight years, who died only four days before him. Lady Bruce, R.R.C, O.B.E., artist, musician, fine shot, housewife of infinite resource, courageous, tactful, loyal, was also a fine microscopist, an excellent illustrator of scientific papers, and an able improviser of laboratory apparatus - thereby supplying skills which her husband lacked. Together they formed a team of rare accomplishment.
G H Brown
[Lancet, 1931; B.M.J., 1931; Times, 28 Nov. 1931; D.N.B., 1931-40, 108]