May 19, 1935: Lawrence of Arabia Responsible for Motorcycle Helmets!

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A Brief History

On May 19, 1935, the famous British World War I hero known as “Lawrence of Arabia,” Thomas E. Lawrence, died 6 days after crashing his motorcycle while avoiding boys bicycling in the street.

Digging Deeper

Recipient of numerous military honors, British and including the French Legion of Honor, a bronze bust of him was placed alongside the tombs of other British war heroes, but it well could be that the famous warrior contributed most to society by getting killed in the motorcycle accident.  Upon his grievous injuries he was attended to by an Australian neurosurgeon, Dr. Hugh Cairns, who was prompted by Lawrence’s death to study motorcycle crashes and subsequent head injuries.  The results of Dr. Cairn’s studies resulted in the widespread use of motorcycle helmets by military and civilian riders, undoubtedly saving many thousands of lives over the ensuing decades.

Born a bastard in 1888, the Lawrence name was not even a real family name, but one assumed by his unwed parents.  Lawrence graduated from Jesus College in 1910 with a degree in History (yay!) and began work as an archaeologist in the Middle East.  Attending military officer training in 1908, when World War I broke out in 1914 Lawrence was mobilized and tasked with mapping and survey work while outwardly doing his archaeological work.

When open war started, Lawrence was assigned as an intelligence officer and began his career as a special operative fighting alongside Arab allies against the Central Powers (largely the Turks) in Egypt and Arabia, and the Levant, mostly in guerrilla actions, sabotage and raids.  His heroism and dashing success made him famous, and later the subject of all sorts of stories, films and popular culture.

The real man was even more fascinating than the legend, and Lawrence was in correspondence with all sorts of famous writers, politicians, playwrights and the like, including Winston Churchill, Noel Coward, GB Shaw, EM Forster and numerous other glitterati.  Returning to Britain as a Colonel and having served as an adviser to Churchill, Lawrence took the bizarre step of enlisting in the RAF under a false name.  Found out and rejected, he tried again and was booted from the service after a year or so when he was again found out.  Lawrence, ever the persistent type, then enlisted in the Tank Corps under another false name, and was then admitted back into the RAF in 1925, leaving that service shortly before his death in 1935.

Lawrence was an avid writer and left a large body of writings, from prolific letters to books about his wartime experiences, service in the RAF, novels, and archaeological works, earning considerable money from royalties.  Today his life as a legend has been celebrated on stage, in books, on film, on television and even in video games.  Question for students (and subscribers): Does the real man sound like his pop culture legend?  Feel free to comment on the life and legacy of this most interesting character in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Charles River Editors.  Lawrence of Arabia: The Life and Legacy of T.E. Lawrence.  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.

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About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.