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Cecil Austin (Cec) Gibb (1913–1994)

by Tim Rowse

This article was published:

Cecil Gibb, 1991

Cecil Gibb, 1991

ANU Archives

Cecil Austin George Gibb (1913–1994), psychologist and university administrator, was born on 18 August 1913 at Marrickville, Sydney, elder child of locally born Harry Austin Gibb, sawmill manager, and his Queensland-born wife Sophia, née Renner. Educated at a series of Queensland schools and at Fort Street Boys’ High School, Sydney, Cec studied psychology and mathematics, and then economics at the University of Sydney (BA Hons, 1935; BEc, 1939; MA, 1940). For his honours thesis on ‘The Psychology of Noise’ he received a university medal in 1935.

Highly commended for his clarity, common sense, attention to method, and geniality by Professor H. T. Lovell and A. H. Martin, Gibb worked for the New South Wales Department of Education (1936–37), doing ‘factor analysis of school examinations’ (Gibb 1991). His research under the direction of Harold Wyndham also led to the department’s acceptance of left-handedness in pupils and teachers. Of more long-term significance, work under Wyndham developed Gibb’s skill in factor analysis, a statistical technique for delineating the measurable dimensions of complex phenomena. In 1937 the University of Sydney appointed him assistant lecturer in psychology. He married Margaret Vera Young, a stenotypist, at St Alban’s Church of England, Epping, on 12 August 1939. She typed his master’s thesis, a pioneering (in Australia) application of factor analysis to the study of personality; it gained him a second university medal. Committed to adult education, he lectured after hours on psychology and economics to the Retail Traders Training Institute (1940–41).

During World War II Gibb served (1942–46) in the Australian Army Psychology Service, rising to temporary major (1945); he was briefly in the Citizen Military Forces in 1942, before transferring to the Australian Imperial Force.  As a member of the Officers’ Pre-Selection Board from November 1943 to September 1944, he was responsible for assessing men’s aptitude for officer-training. This work shifted his interest from personality to leadership. He formulated an increasingly influential contextual view in which leaders were not bearers of inherited traits. Rather leadership was a role that emerged when group conditions enabled individuals to interact in observable ways about which science could generalise. Having administered tests in Darwin and New Guinea, he was transferred to the Reserve of Officers in March 1946.

In the 1940s universities in the United States of America were leading the development of experimental psychology, and American corporations were interested in applying findings to better management. After resuming at the University of Sydney, Gibb enrolled as a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois (PhD, 1949), funded by Australia’s Special Plan for Post-Graduate Training Overseas. Raymond B. Cattell, an expert in psychological measurement, supervised his thesis, titled ‘The Emergence of Leadership in Small Temporary Groups of Men.’ Gibb returned briefly to teaching at Sydney, before resigning in November 1950 to join Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, United States.

At Dartmouth Gibb coordinated an innovative interdisciplinary program, involving psychology, communications, philosophy, and sociology. In purpose-built facilities, faculty and students were encouraged to observe their own interactions as data for building theories about human relations. He also developed a protocol for observing teacher-student interaction. Published papers from his master’s and doctoral researches led the editors of the Handbook of Social Psychology (1954) to commission his chapter on the psychology of leadership. The scientific products firm E. I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co. employed him as a consultant in the summer of 1955, to advise on employee motivation.

Family pressures to return to Australia and Dartmouth’s unwillingness to give him tenure prompted Gibb to seek an Australian appointment. Turned down by the University of Queensland, he applied to Canberra University College (CUC) and was appointed foundation professor of psychology in 1955. He found congenial the smallness of both Canberra and the college. His inaugural lecture celebrated the relevance of psychology to ‘any situation where some persons are responsible for controlling or changing the behaviour of others’ (Gibb 1956, 3), and affirmed that all psychology was necessarily social. Yet he also held that psychology is a biological science and insisted that his department be placed in the science faculty. He was chairman of the Australian branch of the British Psychological Society in 1958. The dynamics of families was one of his research interests at the time, though he found resistance to his highly mathematical approach. Human behaviour in formal organisations remained his abiding interest; with other CUC social scientists, he participated in a series of seminars called ‘Authority, Hierarchy and Leadership.’ In 1962 he was contracted to the Educational Testing Service at Princeton University, New Jersey, United States; his work included the study of executive decision-making.

Appointed OBE in 1970, Gibb was esteemed for his practice of leadership, as well as for his researched knowledge of leadership’s psychology. Having strongly supported the amalgamation of CUC with the Australian National University (ANU) in 1960, he served as deputy chairman of the board of the School of General Studies (1966–71). He found in the fellowship of Canberra Rotary Club (president, 1973–74) an additional forum for the discussion of university affairs. The expansion of higher education continued to engage him as both a practical problem and theme of academic research. In 1969 he began to inquire into the best methods for universities to select from applicants for enrolment. Accepting his recommendation that the university should attach less importance to formal test scores at matriculation, the ANU initiated student recruitment in the final year of high school. In 1972 his visiting fellowships at the universities of Washington and Edinburgh focused on the social psychology of universities. The ANU appointed him acting head of its Office of Research in Academic Methods in 1977, but his retirement in 1978 gave him little chance to shape the office’s research program. His work on universities and their systems continued in the form of a short monograph (1979) on the standardisation of Australian universities admissions processes, commissioned by the Tertiary Education Commission.

Gibb’s focus was not always on university affairs. His papers include two addresses to graduating nurses on the social aspects of their occupation. A (childless) citizen of the Australian Capital Territory, he formed views on the design of its school system. When the public debated whether IQ tests should be used to stream the academically gifted, his opinion was that such streaming fostered ‘class distinctions which are contrary to our contemporary ideology’ (Gibb 1957, 3). In 1970 he agreed to examine a scene of rapid change far removed from Canberra and from elites’ decision-making: the future of Indigenous Australians on the cattle stations of the Northern Territory. At the invitation of the Gorton government, he chaired a committee of officials and industry representatives that toured the Northern Territory. Anticipating that pastoral work could not continue to sustain large camps on pastoral leases, the Gibb Committee report (1971) advised how Aboriginal people could be encouraged into other occupations and enterprises without having to migrate to cities.

Elected a fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia in 1956, Gibb also sat on Australia’s United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Advisory Committee (1960–64). He resigned his ASSA fellowship in 1993, on grounds of his inactivity. Described by Cattell as ‘a gentlemanly, scholarly person … possessed of a good sense of humour’ (NLA MS 9231), he was an outstanding teacher and university administrator. Survived by his wife, he died on 1 May 1994 in Canberra. The ANU Research School of Psychology seminar series is named in his honour.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Cook, Michael. ‘A Distinguished Career at ANU.’ Canberra Times, 14 May 1994, 6
  • Cook, Michael. ‘Emeritus Professor Cecil Gibb 1913–1994.’ ANU Reporter, 25 May 1994, 11
  • Gibb, C. A. Rats, Relations and Roles: Inaugural Lecture Delivered at the Canberra University College on 5 September 1956. Canberra: Canberra University College, 1956
  • Gibb, Cecil A. ‘Selection for Schools.’ Canberra Times, 30 May 1957, 2–3
  • Gibb, Cecil Austin. Interview by Stephen Foster, 18 October 1991. Sound recording. ANU Oral History Project. Australian National University Archives
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, NX142032
  • National Library of Australia. MS 9231, Papers of Cecil Gibb, 1936–1983

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Tim Rowse, 'Gibb, Cecil Austin (Cec) (1913–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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