Keith Briggs

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In memory of Gill Briggs (Newnham College 1950)

Reproduced (with minor changes) from Newnham in Australia Newsletter March 2012 Issue 5, page 6, with permission of the editor and author of this piece, Melissa Fisher.

The delightful Gill Briggs (NC 1950), enthusiastic gardener and Scrabble player extraordinaire passed away suddenly in Adelaide on 27 August 2011.

Gillian Awbery was born in 1931 in Hampton, Middlesex, UK. She was the only child of the famous physicist J. H. (James) Awbery OBE and his wife Doris. Gill was strongly influenced by her father, whom she adored, and, in one way or another, physics was to remain a constant presence throughout her life. Gill grew up in London. During the blitz, she was evacuated to Plymouth. For the rest of her life, sounds which reminded her of bombs falling caused her great upset.

Gill was at Newnham from 1950 to 1953. She read Natural Sciences (physics). At Newnham, she formed a close trio of friendship with Enid Sage and Dilys West (née Birch) which lasted for the rest of her life. Gill lived in Peile Hall with Enid and Dilys. There, they regularly met in each other's rooms at the end of the day for a coffee and a chat. They also greatly enjoyed taking the punt out on the river when time and the weather allowed. Enid reports: “At Cambridge, I remember Gill as a quiet, rather reserved girl, who gave the appearance of being very shy, although I do not think she was as shy as she appeared. She was very composed and slightly quizzical in outlook, but a true and loyal friend and confidante”.

Gill joined the Physics Society and became its secretary. It was there that she met her future husband, Basil Briggs. Enid recalls that during their last year at Cambridge “Gill was very much involved with Basil”. Basil was born in Bradford and was awarded a scholarship to Cambridge in 1941. He graduated in 1942 with a war-time accelerated degree and was sent as a Junior Scientific Officer to the Telecommunications Research Establishment at Malvern, home of British radar. After the war, Basil spent 15 years working at the Cavendish with his mentor, J. A. Ratcliffe. He was awarded his PhD in 1952.

Having taken her degree in 1953, Gill worked in an X-ray film lab in Cambridge for a year investigating how film responded to radiation from radioactive isotopes. In 1954, Gill and Basil were married. From 1954 to 1962, they lived in Cambridge where they had four children. Gill often took the children to the Botanic Gardens and, later in life, had many happy memories of spending time with her children there.

In 1962, Basil was appointed to a senior lectureship at the University of Adelaide and the family moved to Australia where another daughter was born. Gill, while pursuing her own career as a high school physics and maths teacher, was steadfastly supportive of Basil in his work. Basil had a long and distinguished career in radio science. He was a pioneer in the development of radio techniques for studying the structure and motion of the lower ionosphere and was a world leader in the interpretation of radar scatter from irregularities in the ionosphere. In 1992, he was awarded the Harrie Massey Prize for outstanding contribution to physics in Australia.

Gill was devoted to her five children and, subsequently, her six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Her daughter Jenny recalls that Gill fostered a love of learning in her children and took pains to support their various interests. Basil died in 1994. Gill continued to live in the family home in Adelaide and to cultivate a large and diverse garden of which she was justifiably proud.

Happily, Gill was able to claim in 2009 that “as a retired person, I have little spare time”. In her own words: “Botany, birds and words are my things”.

She was involved in various natural history groups in Adelaide and helped with the Field Naturalists Society both in the field and with tasks such as reporting on talks at meetings. She enjoyed doing cryptic crosswords and competing locally in monthly Scrabble tournaments and also in state and national tournaments, winning many prizes. Gill also had great skill as a proofreader, her father having required her to proofread his physics papers from the time she was 13.

In November 2010, Gill attended the Newnham alumnae dinner in Brisbane where she renewed her friendship with June McNicol (NC 1944) whom she had not seen since 1956. While Gill and June had not been at Newnham together, they had known each other in Cambridge as mothers of young children when their husbands worked together at the Cavendish. June reports that she and Gill had a lovely time together at the Brisbane dinner. Gill told June how fond she was of gardening, so they spent the next day at the Brisbane Botanical Gardens together.

Gill remained full of life right to the end. At the time of her sudden death, she was days away from embarking on a trip to the UK, first stop Melbourne, where she was to attend the Australian alumnae dinner commemorating 140 years of Newnham.

In March last year [2011], alumnae were asked for their memories of a special place in Cambridge. Gill's response was as follows: “Very special is a bit difficult, as many places bring particular memories, but it was always fascinating to go along Free School Lane to physics lectures through the archway where Ernest Rutherford and J. J. Thompson were once photographed in earnest conversation... All the ways out of the marketplace were interesting (especially if one had time to glance at David's second-hand books) but Petty Cury at that time was most pleasing, with the lovely old Heffers bookshop and its beautiful staircase”.

On 19 August 2011, at the age of 79, Gill suffered a severe stroke. She died peacefully in Adelaide on 27 August 2011.

References: I am indebted to Gill's daughter, Jenny; Enid Sage (NC 1950) and June McNicol (NC 1944) for their assistance in the preparation of this tribute. G. Elford & R. Vincent, “Basil Hugh Briggs (1923–1994) — an appreciation”, Journal of Atmospheric and Terrestrial Physics Vol. 56.

Melissa Fisher (NC 1996)


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