We remember him especially for Peter O’Toole’s unforgettable portrayal of him in the feature film by David Lean (1962). Archaeologist, military officer, writer and Arabist, the Briton Thomas Edward Lawrence—known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia—accumulated plenty of reasons to become a legend. However, much less known is how his premature death would lead to the popularisation of the use of helmets for motorcyclists.
After helping to amalgamate the Arab revolution against the Turkish Empire during the First World War, Lawrence of Arabia (August 16, 1888 – May 19, 1935) returned to his homeland, where his restlessness would lead him to enlist in the Royal Air Force. At the age of 46, having recently been discharged from this service, he was enjoying a quiet retirement in his Dorset cottage, where he gave himself up to another of his great passions: motorcycles.
On the morning of May 13, 1935, Lawrence mounted his Brough Superior SS100, known at the time as the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles, which had been given to him by the playwright George Bernard Shaw, and rode to the military base of Bovington Camp to send a telegram. He never made it back home. On his return journey, he had to swerve suddenly to avoid two boys riding their bicycles and was thrown over the handlebars. He was rushed to the hospital in Bovington, where he remained in a coma until his death six days later on May 19.
The death of Lawrence of Arabia caused an international stir. Among those affected by the loss was Hugh Cairns, a 38-year-old surgeon who practiced in London and had been required by the doctors at the military base to care for the famous patient. But Cairns could not save Lawrence, as his head trauma was too serious.
Lawrence had not been wearing a helmet when the accident happened, since at that time their use in the United Kingdom was only mandatory in sports races. After that event, head protection for motorcyclists would become the core of the surgeon’s career.
A reference for English neurosurgery
Born in Port Pirie (Australia), Cairns (June 26, 1896 – July 18, 1952) served in the Middle East and France during the First World War, and eventually settled in Britain. As a young and promising surgeon, in 1926 he moved to Boston (USA) to learn a new discipline, neurosurgery, from one of its founders, Harvey Cushing. At that time, brain surgery was rarely practiced and there was no specialty. Thanks to the experience in the USA, upon his return to London Hospital, Cairns became ground zero for English neurosurgery. He was therefore the expert to turn to when Lawrence lay in a coma with a massive brain injury.
In the years following Lawrence’s accident, and from his newly founded Nuffield Department of Surgery at the University of Oxford, Cairns undertook a pioneering study on the mortality and brain injuries suffered by motorcyclists. With the outbreak of the Second World War, the importance of the helmet was demonstrated: in 1941, Cairns wrote in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) that 2,279 motorcyclists had died in the United Kingdom during the first 21 months of the war, 21% more than in peacetime. “In a number of cases the fatal outcome might have been avoided if adequate protection for the head had been worn,” he wrote, noting that only seven patients treated by him had worn helmets, and all of them had survived.
The reason for the increase in traffic accidents, even when fuel was being rationed, was partly due to the blackouts caused by the war: public lighting was not switched on as a precaution against bombing and vehicles circulated with dimmed lights. But the reason for the deaths of the motorcyclists was undoubtedly the absence of the helmet: Cairns discovered that, of 149 cases analysed, head injuries were the cause of death in 102 of them.
Mandatory use of helmet in the army
The study attracted considerable attention and served to make the use of the helmet mandatory for motorcyclists in the British Army in November 1941. For his next study, published in the BMJ in 1943, Cairns had the help of the Oxford physicist and motorcyclist A. H. Holbourn. According to the doctor and historian John Trevor Hughes in an article published in 2001 in the Journal of Medical Biography, Holbourn calculated the forces exerted on the brain in an accident, explaining that the direct impact was added to by the blow of the brain against the skull. The physicist came to make a model of the brain with gelatine and formaldehyde to test the effects of accidents.
In their 1943 paper, Cairns and Holbourn summarized 106 cases of injured motorcyclists wearing helmets in order to examine which model was the safest of the two most commonly used then, one made with vulcanized rubber and the other with compressed wood pulp. Comparing the results, they concluded: “As regards prevention of fractures of the skull, the pulp helmet is about four times as good as the vulcanized.” Both helmets had an external cover and internal support to cushion the blow, but the second was more resistant and better designed.
Cairns passed away from cancer in 1952 without living to see the imposition of the mandatory wearing of helmets for all motorcyclists, but others continued his work and the measure was finally approved in the United Kingdom in 1973. Ricardo Alves de Sousa, an engineer at the University of Aveiro (Portugal) specialised in the biomechanics of cephalic injuries and protection systems, explained to OpenMind that motorcycle helmets have evolved in recent decades thanks to the use of carbon fibre or Kevlar for the outer shell and expanded polystyrene for the interior, which are now being joined by other materials such as EVA, EPP or D3O. But there are still “enormous possibilities for improvement,” says Alves de Sousa of the humble helmet, a technological advance that saves millions of lives and that began with the story of two geniuses who never managed to exchange a single word.