Michael Briggs was the foundation professor of endocrinology at Deakin University, Geelong, whose specialty was the biology and safety of oral contraceptives. A few years after his arrival, however, questions began to be raised about his research, in particular the high compliance and low dropout rates of his studies. These gained further impetus when hormone tests allegedly performed at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne were found not to have been done, and nurses allegedly recruited for a study at Geelong had not been asked. When Dr Jim Rossiter, the chair of the university ethics committee, checked on Briggs's qualifications, he found that his PhD from Cornell did not exist.
Thereafter the management of this case became fraught with difficulties. The university chancellor refused Rossiter's request to obtain specialist advice and subsequently for a committee of inquiry to be set up, even though Briggs had failed to reply to a letter asking for a response to Rossiter's questions. Subsequently an inquiry, which had been established by the vice-chancellor, was quashed on an appeal by Briggs (supported by the university staff association) to the university visitor, who stated that it had been improperly created. Further moves were also stymied when Briggs resigned and constitutionally any inquiry had to stop.
Nevertheless, the whistleblowers, and particularly Rossiter, had been harassed by threatening phone calls in the middle of the night, while there was an atmosphere of unhappiness at the university, which was split between those who supported Briggs and those who did not. A subsequent official inquiry into the university's procedures explained some of the anomalies, although several of the participants found it evasive on some details and, as always, such painful episodes are hard to adjust to. The whole of Swan's extended account makes a fascinating read of how personalities can affect events so profoundly, but to me the particular emphasis to come out of it all is the credulity of scientists when faced with a charming conman, something also seen in the Darsee case. Geelong is a small town, and to anybody with a slightly sceptical frame of mind the numbers of women allegedly recruited for these studies are unbelievable (as Darsee's bleeding of the rats' tails should have been). So peer reviewers should be counselled to think the unthinkable.
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