Lawrence of Arabia and the Motorcycle Helmet

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Thomas Edward Lawrence,  (1888 – 1935) was a British army intelligence officer during the First World War.

His efforts in instigating the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turkish (allies of Germany) were featured in a documentary by American journalist Lowell Thomas, ultimately earning him international fame as Lawrence of Arabia.

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Lawrence had trouble adjusting back into civilian life after his retirement from military service, exacerbated by his fame and pursuit by the media.

He built a small hut in a then rural area of my home town, Chingford, where he completed his book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”.  This is commemorated by a plaque fixed on the obelisk on Pole Hill.

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Lawrence was an avid motorcyclist and owned seven different Brough Superiors, dubbed the “Rolls-Royces of Motorcycles.”

On the morning of May 13, 1935, Lawrence was speeding down a narrow county road on his motorbike, when he suddenly swerved to avoid hitting two boys on bicycles and was thrown forward over the handlebars.

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At the time, helmets were only worn during races, and he sustained a skull fracture and massive head injuries.

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 the young neurosurgeon Hugh Cairns.

Lawrence died 5 days later, without regaining consciousness.

Cairns was so profoundly moved by the tragedy of this famous First World War hero’s tragic death from severe head trauma, that he devoted his career to head trauma in motorcyclists.

During the Second World War, Cairns noted the high death rate amongst army dispatch riders, even before the actual start of hostilities, exacerbated by restricted radio communications and blackout regulations.

He observed that 2279 motorcyclists and pillion passengers were killed in road accidents during the first 21 months of the war.  However, there were only 7 cases of motorcyclists injured while wearing a crash helmet, none fatal.

His collected the monthly totals of motorcyclist fatalities in the United Kingdom from 1939 to 1945:

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And he noted that the decline in the number of fatalities took place after November 1941, when crash helmets became compulsory for army motorcyclists on duty.

Further work included an analysis of the pathophysiology and mechanisms of head injury, which led to the development of new more protective designs and materials for crash helmets:

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Click here to find out more about Lawrence, Cairns and crash helmets.