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Remembering pioneering motorbike safety medic

Man driving a motorbike
14th May 2014

The surgeon who was one of the first doctors to call for motorcyclists to wear helmets has been recognised with the unveiling of a blue plaque on his former home. Sir Hugh Cairns, who died 50 years ago this July, was among the team of medics who attempted to save the life of celebrated First World War hero T.E. Lawrence after he suffered fatal head injuries in a motorbike crash. The experience led him to begin his pioneering research into motorbike accidents and how to increase the safety of riders, culminating in helmets becoming compulsory for bikers.

The accident that set in motion Sir Hugh’s work into motorbike head injury prevention happened on 13th May 1935. T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia had been riding a motorbike near his home in Wareham, Dorset. Lawrence, famous for his exploits fighting alongside Arab tribes against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East during the First World War, was a keen motorcyclist who had owned seven Brough Superior motorcycles. According to reports at the time, a blind summit on the road he was riding down had obscured his view of a pair of cyclists. Reacting quickly, Lawrence swerved to avoid the cyclists, losing control of his motorbike. He was thrown over the handlebars and onto the road, suffering a serious head injury.

As a high profile War Hero, Lawrence was treated by a team of doctors, including Sir Hugh Cairns, a neurosurgeon. Despite the efforts of several doctors, Lawrence succumbed to his injuries only six days later. The incident had a profound effect on Sir Hugh however. Almost immediately he began research into motorcycle accidents and how deaths and serious head injuries could be prevented. This research became his life’s work and the first result of his work was that crash helmets became compulsory for motorcyclists in the army six years later in 1941. Sir Hugh also set up a specialist head injury hospital in Oxford and work there played a major role in making crash helmets compulsory for all motorcyclists in 1973.

The idea for the plaque to mark Sir Hugh’s contribution to motorcycle safety came from a local historical society near his former home in Loughton, north east London. Chris Pond, one of the members of the Loughton and District Historical Society, said he recommended the plaque in recognition of Sir Hugh’s lifelong work that lead to the development and use or crash helmets. In the words of Mr Pond, “He was a man who pushed and pushed. As Cairns himself in life saved many hundreds of people, so did his dogged advocacy of the crash helmet save countless thousands after his own death.”