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Black and white image of Professor Michael Briggs instructing two postgraduate students.

October 14, 2022

The Briggs Affair Part 1: An academic scandal

It’s a fascinating saga in Deakin’s early history, featuring an internationally recognised academic, questionable research, one of the first cases of academic fraud to be investigated in Australia, and the departure of our first Vice-Chancellor. Have you heard about the Briggs affair? 

Our archivist Antony brings you this story in three parts.  

A forgotten scandal 

Many years ago when I started working in the Deakin archives it seemed that the only collection we had of importance were 13 boxes marked The Briggs Papers. The significance of the Briggs Papers lies in their documenting a case of academic fraud at Deakin (one of the first to be investigated in Australia) and to the resulting Inquiry. The whole affair tested the University’s regulations and caused internal divisions that culminated in the resignation of the then Vice Chancellor, Fred Jevons. For many the files were contentious and evidence of a scandal best forgotten.   

I was finally inspired to read the Briggs papers after two encounters with former staff who had been working at Deakin at the time of the case. The conversations I had with these two individuals added a new perspective, one not always reflected in the records. So, this will be a bit of a journey into history, one that I feel reveals the role of recordkeeping and archives to tell important stories. 

The appointment of a prominent academic 

Prof.  Michael Briggs was an authority on the contraceptive pill, specifically blood chemistry changes that might predict long-term risks. He held numerous international positions as an academic and in industrial research, was advisor to the WHO and a prolific writer, authoring many books, some with his wife Maxine. In January 1973 he arrived in Melbourne from the UK to be Director of Biochemistry at the Alfred Hospital. In 1975 he moved to Geelong to be Head of the School of Applied Sciences at the Gordon Institute of Technology, undoubtedly aware that the Institute was to be absorbed into the new Deakin University.  

In 1976 he was appointed Dean of the School of Sciences at Deakin.  

A jet setting academic whose expertise was in demand internationally, he was the sort of academic Deakin’s first Vice-Chancellor Fred Jevons considered might put the new university on the map.  

The school quickly benefited from his reputation, and research funding flowed in from the drug companies Wyeth International and Sherring.  

Professor Briggs was considered to be an energetic and capable administrator of the school. With a forceful and charismatic personality, he was, in general, a popular figure on campus, although some of his colleagues found him overbearing and difficult. 

In 1983, after seven years as Dean of Sciences he did not seek re-election to his position. He later stated that he had decided to apply for the position of Vice Chancellor when the term of Professor Jevons expired. 

Holes in the research begin to appear 

But all was not as it seemed. Fellow international scientists also investigating the effects of the pill considered Briggs’ output extraordinarily prolific, and it seemed impossible that he could conduct the research in the ways he described. These concerns were put to VC Fred Jevons in October 1982. 

Doubts were raised on a drug testing research trial, specifically how the tests had been conducted, how the women tested had been recruited, and whether he obtained approvals by a local ethics committee.   

The international research institutions named by Briggs as partners in his study revealed they had no involvement and when an American researcher had asked to see Briggs’ experimental data, he was told the records were lost. 

Furthermore, it emerged that Briggs was about to publish a paper reporting experimental work on beagles at Deakin, despite there being no beagles at Deakin.  

Deakin staff and academics became embroiled when a circular emerged that was signed by Briggs headed ‘Deakin University Hormone Laboratory’ and was sent to American doctors advertising an oral contraceptive developed by the Wyeth Corporation. In it, trials were claimed to have been conducted at Deakin in 1976, before the university was properly operational. The ‘Deakin University Hormone Laboratory’ did not in fact exist and members of Deakin staff were listed as laboratory assistants, without their knowledge or authority. 

So how did the University respond to these concerning allegations about their new star academic? Stay tuned for the next instalment to find out.  

Want to learn more about Deakin’s history? Check out the History of Deakin website

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