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

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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.

ABBREVIATIONSEMS = Emergency Medical Services; MNSU = Mobile Neurosurgical Unit; MRC = British Medical Research Council; RAMC = Royal Army Medical Corps; UK = United Kingdom; WWI = World War I; WWII = World War II.
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Contributor Notes

INCLUDE WHEN CITING Published online February 19, 2016; DOI: 10.3171/2015.8.JNS142613.Correspondence James L. Stone, Department of Neurosurgery, NorthShore Neurological Institute, NorthShore University HealthSystem, 2650 Ridge Ave., 3rd Fl., Kellogg Bldg., Evanston, IL 60201. email:

© Copyright 1944-2019 American Association of Neurological Surgeons

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