Hugh Cairns, T E Lawrence and the crash helmet (and penicillin)

We’ve been looking at the career of Hugh Cairns (1896-1952), first Nuffield Professor of Surgery, appointed in 1937, and searching for information about his personal archive. As a neurosurgeon, Cairns was concerned about high death rates and damage resulting from head injuries. In 1935 he had attended T E Lawrence after the motorcycle accident that caused his death. This experience, and his observations about the loss of life through motorcycling head injuries, resulted in the introduction of crash helmets for army motorcyclists in the early years of the Second World War and later, for civilian riders.

In 1938, as war became increasingly likely, Cairns formulated the idea of a special hospital for head injuries at Oxford. St Hugh’s College was requisitioned and the Military Hospital for Head Injuries, popularly known as ‘The Nutcrackers Suite’, was created. In addition, mobile neurosurgical units were deployed close to the front, vastly improving the treatment of the wounded. By the end of the war Cairns was working with Professor Howard Florey, assessing the value of the new penicillin treatment for wound infections. Patient records and records of research on brain injury are kept in the archive at St Hugh’s and made available to medical researchers and close relatives of patients: http://www.st-hughs.ox.ac.uk/about-sthughs/college-life/college-archive

Cairns was knighted in 1946. Some of his personal papers are held at Flinders University, Adelaide, among the papers of his biographer, Gus Fraenkel: http://library.flinders.edu.au/resources/collection/special/fraenkel.html

The Cairns Library at the John Radcliffe Hospital is currently collating an online bibliography of articles by and about Cairns with links to full-text where available. We hope to be able to bring you more news of that when it is complete.

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