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Lawrence of Arabia, Sir Hugh Cairns, and the Origin of Motorcycle Helmets

Maartens, Nicholas F. F.R.C.S.(SN); Wills, Andrew D. M.R.C.S.; Adams, Christopher B.T. M.A., M.Ch., F.R.C.S.


WHEN COLONEL T.E. LAWRENCE (“Lawrence of Arabia”) was fatally injured in a motorcycle accident in May 1935, one of the several doctors attending him was a young neurosurgeon, Hugh Cairns. He was moved by the tragedy in a way that was to have far-reaching consequences. At the beginning of the Second World War, he highlighted the unnecessary loss of life among army motorcycle dispatch riders as a result of head injuries. His research concluded that the adoption of crash helmets as standard by both military and civilian motorcyclists would result in considerable saving of life. It was 32 years later, however, that motorcycle crash helmets were made compulsory in the United Kingdom. As a consequence of treating T.E. Lawrence and through his research at Oxford, Sir Hugh Cairns’ work largely pioneered legislation for protective headgear by motorcyclists and subsequently in the workplace and for many sports worldwide. Over subsequent decades, this has saved countless lives.

Department of Neurological Surgery, The Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, England

Received, April 17, 2001.

Accepted, July 9, 2001.

Reprint requests: Nicholas Maartens, F.R.C.S.(SN), Neurological Surgery, The Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, OX2 6HE, England. Email:

Copyright © by the Congress of Neurological Surgeons