“Lawrence of Arabia” and the Modern Helmet.

Lawrence's Brough Superior in the London Imperial War Museum

At the end of the Great War T.E. Lawrence was virtually unknown to the British public. An American journalist, Lowell Thomas, toured Britain with a lavish lecture series outlining T.E. Lawrence’s accomplishments. His romantic accounts of Bible-land victories rapidly transformed T.E. Lawrence into the popular hero. "Lawrence of Arabia"

After a brief spell at the conclusion of hostilities, during which he unsuccessfully advocated and promoted Arab independence (1919-1922), he returned to Oxford and a fellowship at All Souls College. There Lawrence began work as an author, and he produced the hugely acclaimed Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In 1923, after assisting Churchill as an advisor and being instrumental in the creation of the Kingdom of Trans-Jordan (later Jordan), he drifted into a perilous state of mind. He joined the Royal Air Force under an assumed name and 12 years later retired to Clouds Hill in Dorset.
Lawrence loved speed. His motorcycle (one of many)-a Brough Superior, given to him by his friend, George Bernard Shaw-had power and acceleration that outstripped its handling and braking characteristics. On May 13, 1935, he rode his motorcycle through the South Dorset countryside. He wore no helmet, which was not unusual except during a race. As he returned to his cottage, he swerved to avoid two boys on bicycles and pitched over the handlebars, landing in front of his machine and fracturing his cranium.

He was taken to Bovington Camp Military Hospital in a coma, where the best specialists in the country were rushed to save him. One of them was the young neurosurgeon Hugh Cairns born in Port Pirie, South Australia. Lawrence died 5 days later, without regaining consciousness, at the age of 47 years. This motorcycle accident was to have major ramifications for thousands of future motorcyclists. Hugh Cairns was profoundly moved by the tragedy of this famous First World War hero dying inexorably at such a young age from severe head trauma. Having been powerless to save Lawrence, Cairns characteristically set about identifying, studying, and solving the problem of head trauma prevention in motorcyclists.

Cairns recognized the unnecessary loss of life among the dispatch riders of the British Army, even before the actual start of hostilities. This caused Cairns to give his attention to providing some means of protection for them. He devised a helmet with a smooth outer shell supported by a lining consisting of a number of webbing slings attached to the base. This was introduced to the armed forces by Cairns in 1941 and brought about an immediate reduction in the mortality and morbidity from head injury. In 1941, his first and most important article on the subject was published in the British Medical Journal. He observed that 2279 motorcyclists and pillion passengers had been killed in road accidents during the first 21 months of the war, and head injuries were by far the most common cause of death. Most significantly, however, Cairns had only observed seven cases of motorcyclists injured while wearing a crash helmet, all of which were nonfatal injuries.
His 1946 article on crash helmets charted the monthly totals of motorcyclist fatalities in the United Kingdom from 1939 to 1945. The obvious decline in the number of fatalities took place after November 1941, when crash helmets became compulsory for all army motorcyclists on duty.

His article concluded:
"From these experiences there can be little doubt that adoption of a crash helmet as standard wear by all civilian motorcyclists would result in considerable saving of life, working time, and the time of hospitals"
It was not until 1973, 32 years after his first scientific article on the subject, were crash helmets made compulsory for all motorcycle riders and pillion passengers in the United Kingdom.

Steve B.

Lawrence's Brough Superior in the London Imperial War Museum

Pics by Murray Barnard





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