Michael's Profile

Michael was born to his Australian father and Scottish mother in 1937 in Woking, UK. His basic education was at Wellington College in Berkshire, moving on to become a Cambridge University and St Thomas’ Hospital London graduate in medicine. After graduation he commenced training as an ophthalmologist, entranced by the precision and technology involved with eye surgery. But his joint interest in medicine and engineering took him instead into fields that embraced both sciences. To start with, he joined the RAF and worked with a team training aircrew in the basics of aviation medicine. Posted for three years in Cyprus, one of his duties was as the medical officer in the Near East Air Force parachute rescue team.

His aviation medicine experience awakened his interest in the prevention of injury in aircraft crashes, which led on to his lifetime's work in the prevention of all kinds of accidental injury and the emerging science of biomechanics.

He cannot remember ever not being interested in cars and motoring. He started racing in 1960 with a Lotus Seven he put together from a kit. It was the first Seven BMC and his racing was supported by Lotus Components in return for writing about it and involvement in a promotional film. He went on to race different sports-racing cars, and took an Elva BMW out with him when he and his wife Norma emigrated to Sydney, his father’s birthplace.

While still in the RAF he combined his interests in aviation crash protection and motor racing, establishing the close relationship between one and the other, and going on to document the causation and outcome of race crashes in the UK through the 1967 season.

The book he wrote following his studies, “Motor Racing in Safety, the Human Factors” (PJS, 1968), proved to be a seminal step in the introduction of safety concepts into a sporting field that was then exceptionally dangerous and was resulting in hundreds of deaths and countless injuries world wide every year. His work was most notable in the promotion, use and development of safety harnesses. Previously, the use of any kind of safety belt in motor racing was virtually unheard of, but very rapidly it became universal after he proved its worth. Throughout the years 1968 and 1969 race harness use went from near-zero to near 100 per cent, and death rates in motor sport plummeted. Among other innovations he introduced the concept of a six-point harness, which firmly restrains the pelvic region and prevents potentially fatal "submarining" under the lap belt. The six-point belt is now a virtual necessity in all forms of the sport and for which he has received substantial recognition.

In 1968 he and Norma emigrated to the country of three generations of his Henderson forebears, Australia, and settled in Sydney with Norma and daughter Anita (the designer and manager of this web site). The plan was to join the aviation medicine division of the Australian Department of Civil Aviation, but before the planned job became available he was invited to fly back to Europe for an even more exciting proposition.

Michael in Sigma GP, Geneva Motor Show 1969

He joined a project team sponsored by Italy's famous Pininfarina and Ferrari companies. The intention was to design and build the “Sigma Grand Prix”, a concept safety race car based on a 1967 Formula One Ferrari. The team members included Sergio Pininfarina and his colleague Renzo Carli, racing driver Paul Frere, Professor of engineering Ernst Fiala and Mauro Forghieri of the Ferrari Formula One team, all brought together by Swiss motoring journalist Robert Braunschweig. The Sigma (S for "safety") was hugely influential in stimulating interest in race car crash protection in the early 1970s. It embodied every known principle of crash protection at the time, and every one of its innovations eventually became incorporated into Formula One (and other) sporting regulations. Until his death the car was still regarded by Pininfarina as one of his most important Ferrari concept cars ever. It is still shown world wide, and is usually displayed either in Turin or at the Ferrari museum in Maranello.

Returning to Sydney, and partly as a result of publicity associated with his work on race car safety and the Sigma Grand Prix, he was invited to join a brand new team in Sydney. The NSW government had decided to established the first government-funded road crash research institute and laboratory in Australia, and one of the first in the world. He soon came to direct the work of what became the Traffic Accident Research Unit, and was nominated Director of Traffic Safety in New South Wales. In this job he was one of the then quite few road safety researchers and administrators in the world, overseeing innovations such as the universal use of seat belts, testing for alcohol in the blood and breath, and a substantial direction of funds and policies to safer cars and safer roads.

This was inspiring work but by the end of the seventies Michael found the bureaucratic demands of public service became too heavy for challenging research. This then allowed him and Norma to concentrate on their joint passion for sailing, and plans to sail the world. They worked together to build a suitable yacht from a bare hull, and set off across the Pacific ocean in September 1981. Their experience in sailing the oceans of the world in the 37-ft sloop Cera from 1981 to 1989 is documented on this web site in the Yachting pages.

On return to Sydney Michael established a road safety research consultancy, which became very successful until it was gradually wound down by 2008.

His interest in motor sport safety never abated, and in 2007 he was invited to became the inaugural Chair of the new Australian Institute for Motor Sport Safety.  Soon after, he was awarded Fellowship of the Institute for Motor Sport Safety of the FIA, the world governing body for international motor sport.

After the voyaging, while still enjoying sailing, Michael returned to racing in the historic vehicle categories in a wide variety of interesting and fast cars. See much more in the Racing pages of this site.

Typical historic racing car grid, Michael in blue Elva-BMW
Typical historic racing car grid, Michael in blue Elva-BMW

FIA Institute Article

Dr Michael Henderson is a doctor of medicine and a graduate of Cambridge University and St Thomas’ Hospital, London. He has spent his entire professional life in aviation, road and motor sport safety research and administration. He was author in 1968 of the seminal book “Motor Racing in Safety” and was one of the designers of the pioneering race safety concept car, the Pininfarina/Ferrari Sigma Grand Prix. He was the originator of the six-point race harness and a pioneer in the use of seat belts in racing cars.

Dr Henderson began circuit racing in Europe in 1960, and has competed since then at national and international level in a wide variety of formula, sports and sedan cars. He still races successfully in one of his significant historic formula and sports racing cars and is an acknowledged expert on the history of safety developments in motor sport. He has lived in Sydney, Australia, since 1968.

He is a past Director of Traffic Safety in New South Wales and established Crashlab, the first government road crash research unit and test laboratory in Australia. He was Chairman of the Australian Government’s Advisory Committee on Road Trauma, and is the author of around 100 research papers on road safety and an award-winning book on the analysis and perception of risk.

In addition to his position as a Fellow of the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety, Dr Henderson is also a Fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine (AAAM), and the Australasian College of Road Safety. He is a member of several other international safety organisations including the Australian Trauma Society and the Society of Automotive Engineers.

In 2004 he was awarded Life Membership of the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport (CAMS), and in 2016 CAMS' highest honour, the Award of Merit. In 2007 Dr Henderson became the inaugural Chairman of the Australian Institute for Motor Sport Safety, and led its expanding research and educational activities until his retirement in 2017.

Four Corners: Baby in the Back Seat (1970)

Can you imagine putting your baby in a car hammock?! Look at what passed for child safety in 1970! #RetroFocus

Posted by ABC Sydney on Sunday, 23 September 2018