Sir Hugh Cairns and Head & Brain Injuries in World War II

Research Paper Title

Sir Hugh Cairns and World War II British advances in head injury management, diffuse brain injury, and concussion: an Oxford tale.


The authors trace the Oxford, England, roots of World War II (WWII)-related advances in head injury management, the biomechanics of concussion and brain injury, and postwar delineation of pathological findings in severe concussion and diffuse brain injury in man.

The prominent figure in these developments was the charismatic and innovative Harvey Cushing-trained neurosurgeon Sir Hugh Cairns. Cairns, who was to closely emulate Cushing’s surgical and scholarly approach, is credited with saving thousands of lives during WWII by introducing and implementing innovative programs such as helmets for motorcyclists, mobile neurosurgical units near battle zones, and the military usage of penicillin. In addition, he inspired and taught a generation of neurosurgeons, neurologists, and neurological nurses in the care of brain and spinal cord injuries at Oxford’s Military Hospital for Head Injuries.

During this time Cairns also trained the first full-time female neurosurgeon. Pivotal in supporting animal research demonstrating the critical role of acceleration in the causation of concussion, Cairns recruited the physicist Hylas Holbourn, whose research implicated rotary acceleration and shear strains as particularly damaging. Cairns’ work in military medicine and head injury remain highly influential in efforts to mitigate and manage brain injury.


Stone, J.L., Patel, V. & Bailes, J.E. (2016) Sir Hugh Cairns and World War II British Advances in Head Injury Management, Diffuse Brain Injury, and Concussion: An Oxford Tale. Journal of Neurosurgery. 125(5), pp.1301-1314. Epub 2016 Feb 19.


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