How one man’s tragic accident would save countless lives after him
I recently ran across the fascinating story of a legendary hero, whose tragic death paved the way for the development of the motorcycle helmet. Being a bit of a history buff, I just had to share this bit of motorcycling trivia that led to the not-so-trivial safety gear we all (hopefully) utilize every time we throw a leg over and throttle out on two wheels.
As a teenager, I remember watching Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia”, the 1962 movie about famed British Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence. It was a grand, sweeping epic, and turns out, quite captured the life and times of the man behind the myth. Lawrence was an archeologist, a writer, a diplomat, and a military officer in the First World War. Most notably, Lawrence became renowned for his leadership in the Arab Revolt as well as the Sinai and Palestine Campaigns against the Turkish Ottoman Empire, an often forgotten theater of the “Great War” from 1915-1918. His wartime activities and feats of bravery, coupled with his vivid writing style about the campaigns, garnered him international acclaim as well as the title, “Lawrence of Arabia”.
Following the war, Lawrence returned to England and joined the British Foreign Office until 1922, when he enlisted and served in the Royal Air Force, including a brief stint in the British Army. He published several works during that time, including his autobiographical “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” which detailed his efforts in the Arab Revolt and the Campaigns, as well as corresponded extensively. Lawrence left the military service in 1935, and settled into private life.
Colonel T.E. Lawrence, aka “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Lawrence was an avid motorcyclist, owning a total of eight Brough Superior bikes at different times. At 46 years old, Lawrence was enjoying a “retirement” of sorts, living in a humble cottage in Dorset, England, corresponding with fans from across the world, and riding his assortment of motorbikes. On May 13, 1935, just two months after being discharged, he hopped on his Brough Superior SS100, itself a gift from playwright George Bernard Shaw, and lit out for the Bovington Camp military base to send a telegram. On his return trip, Lawrence suddenly came upon two boys bicycling. Due to a dip in the road there, he’d been unable to see them, and in a desperate swerve to avoid the boys, Lawrence lost control of the bike and flew head-first over the handlebars. He was rushed as soon as possible to the military hospital back at Bovington Camp, where he remained in a coma until his death six days later on May 19, due to his severe head trauma and other injuries.
Lawrence’s death made international headlines. Mourners the world over flooded his family and estate with sympathies, and he was buried in a family plot at St. Nicholas Church in nearby Moreton. Among the attendees was E.M. Forster, Lady Astor, and Sir Winston Churchill himself.
While in the care of the Bovington Camp hospital, one of Lawrence’s attending physicians was noted English neurosurgeon Dr. Hugh Cairns, who desperately tried to save the legend. At the time of his accident, Lawrence had not been wearing a motorcycle helmet, as only motorcycle racers were required to wear them in England. Cairns concluded that had Lawrence been wearing a safety helmet, his chances of survival would have dramatically improved. Cairns began a long study of motorcycle deaths due to head trauma among military and civilian motorbike riders in England, and founded the Nuffield Department of Surgery at the University of Oxford, devoted to the study of mortality and brain injuries suffered in motorcycle accidents.
Lawrence astride his beloved Brough Superior SS100.
During the Second World War, Cairns published a shocking report in the British Medical Journal in 1941 noting that 2,279 motorcyclists had died in the UK 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. His report conceded that the increase of motorcycle accidents during that time was likely due to blackouts across the Isles during the war, with public lighting switched off against nighttime bombing raids, and vehicles running with dimmed headlights after dark. Yet his findings also pointed out the main cause of deaths among those accidents- the lack of riders wearing helmets. Cairns found that, in 149 cases they analyzed, head trauma was the cause of death among 102 of them. The study and findings attracted much attention, and by November of 1941, the British Army made motorcycle helmets mandatory and standard issue among their riders in uniform.
In 1943, Cairns collaborated with Oxford physicist and motorcycle rider A. H. Holbourn in another study published in the BMJ. The two had calculated the forces exerted on the brain in an accident, explaining that the direct impact to the skull in a crash was exacerbated by the blow of the brain against the walls of the skull as well. They had constructed a model of the human brain from gelatin and formaldehyde to test the effects of head injury in crashes. Helmets of the time were built from either vulcanized rubber or compressed wood pulp as the protective layer, between an external hard shell and an internal support liner. Cairns and Holbourn studied 106 cases of injured motorcyclists wearing helmets in order to examine which model was the safest of the two most commonly used. Interestingly, their conclusion showed, “As regards prevention of fractures of the skull, the pulp helmet is about four times as good as the vulcanized.”
English neurosurgeon Dr. Hugh Cairns.
Doctor Cairns passed away in 1952 from cancer, and never saw motorcycle helmet use become law in the United Kingdom. His work continued, however, and by 1973, the UK instituted their first sweeping helmet laws for motorcycle riders. Cairns’ studies and others would result in wider helmet use and helmet laws in the United States and other countries around the world as well.
Today helmet technology keeps advancing, with the use of carbon fiber, kevlar and other tough composites for outer shells, and expanded polystyrene for interiors, which are now being joined by other materials such as EVA, EPP or D3O. The motorcycle helmet is the single most important element of motorcycle riding gear today, due in no small part to two individuals who sadly, never had the opportunity to exchange a single word with each other in a British military hospital in 1935.
Story inspiration: BBVA-OpenMind
*photos public domain
The mandatory use of helmets in the British Army during the early stages of WWII saved many lives, Dr. Cairns studies proved.