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Snippet of an old newspaper headline that reads, 'Exposed: the bogus work of professor briggs'

November 8, 2022

The Briggs Affair Part 3: Fallout

In the last instalment of this series we heard that despite the evidence that prominent researcher Prof. Michael Briggs had engaged in scientific misconduct, the outcome of the University’s inquiry in 1984 was inconclusive. This left Vice-Chancellor Fred Jevons in a difficult position and undermined by the response of University Chancellor Asche. 

Jevons was also under attack from the press. The case was reported locally, nationally and internationally, but the technicalities where often misunderstood. A constant emphasis on Professor Jevons’ made it appear that he was the sole person responsible for the failure to prosecute the case.  

The second inquiry 

A second inquiry was required, legal uncertainties were cleared up and a hearing date was set for 4 November 1985. 

Prof Briggs was in Britain when informed of the complaint, but before the hearing could commence he resigned from the University. The Regulations permitted his resignation while under investigation but also required that once accepted the University could no longer proceed with the investigation.  

The Sunday Times interview 

Some months after his resignation, journalists from the Sunday Times in London discovered that Professor Briggs was living in Marbella on the Costa del Sol in Spain. After a four-hour interview, journalists reported that ‘much of the work as described and presented by Briggs never took place’ and that ‘Briggs admitted he had collected from other peoples unpublishable, small-scale findings and generalised them into apparently big and convincing trials’. He refused, however, to reveal the source of his data. ‘If I tell you who organised the studies’, he allegedly said, ‘you will know Who is involved’. 

An article in the Geelong Advertiser reveals Briggs contacted the Sunday Times after the interview ‘feeling on reflection he had said too much’. Briggs now denied the allegations and is quoted as saying ‘he would have to be a ‘bloody magician’ to have fabricated his results’. He began legal proceedings against the Sunday Times, but shortly afterwards, on 28 November 1986, Briggs died at the age of 51. The cause of death was heart failure after a digestive haemorrhage and cirrhosis of the liver. 

The aftermath 

The implications of the case were wide ranging. Fred Jevons was gutted by the experience. He determined that attempting to continue as VC would not have the unanimous support of Council, so negotiated an exit. In his last address to Council he asserts a university must ‘guard intellectual integrity and excellence’ or else ‘fail the community that harbours and nurtures it’, reiterating that the task is ‘eternal vigilance’. 

Some within Deakin wanted to brush the matter under the carpet, but because of the publicity around Jevon’s actions and the failure of the inquiry, they were only too keen to blame the outgoing VC rather than consider the effects of their own inaction.  

When Briggs resigned, he left an office full of records. Some were mailed to him in Spain, the rest were held for six months and then destroyed. What these records might have revealed we can only guess. Records retained in archives are those used for a report into the case by Margery Ramsay, commissioned by Deakin in 1988. A collection of books Briggs wrote with his wife Maxine were recovered and are also stored in our archives. Personal accounts by past staff at Deakin tell their own stories.  

Bob Pritchard is a former Deakin Information Officer and one of the people who inspired me to look more deeply into this affair. He says that though there was no successful resolution to the Briggs case, you would have to conclude that Deakin’s current global standing as an academic and research institution owes much to the actions of Jevons and Rossiter at that time. I see it as a tipping point, that turned Deakin from the collection of TAFE colleges that it still was then, into a serious university. 

Want to learn more about Deakin’s past? Explore our History of Deakin website. 

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