Roger Bannister dies aged 88: Obituary

The first athlete to run a sub four-minute mile was also an eminent neurologist

Roger Bannister is chaired by fellow medical students at St. Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, London after he had set his all-time record for the mile at Oxford. Photograph: PA

Roger Bannister is chaired by fellow medical students at St. Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, London after he had set his all-time record for the mile at Oxford. Photograph: PA

 

On a blustery spring evening in Oxford in the 1950s, Roger Bannister, who has died aged 88, became an athlete of world renown, establishing himself as the most celebrated British sportsman of the period following the second world war. He never won an Olympic title, he set only one individual world record (which he relinquished after barely six weeks) and he retired from running at the height of his powers when he was only 25. But on May 6th 1954, on the Iffley Road cinder track that he had helped to lay as an undergraduate a few years earlier, he ran a mile in under four minutes, a target that had begun to assume almost superhuman proportions in the eyes of the public, the media and many athletes, too.

Runners in Europe, the US and Australia had whittled down their mile times as the world record assumed an ever-increasing importance. In the US, Wes Santee clocked 4min 2.4sec, and some weeks later failed in a widely publicised attempt at a four-minute mile. In Australia, John Landy ran four separate races in and around 4min 2sec. Bannister himself, with the help of Christopher Chataway, broke the British record in Oxford with 4min 3.6sec.

But nobody came really close to the four-minute mark; indeed, no one seriously threatened the world record of 4min 1.4sec set in 1945 by the Swede Gunder Hägg. Early in 1954 Landy announced that he would spend the early part of the summer training – and racing – in Finland. Expectations of a four-minute mile were now at boiling point, and Bannister knew he had to strike fast. With two friends providing the most elite pace-making squad that could be imagined – Chataway, who later that summer took the 5000m world record, and Chris Brasher, who won an Olympic gold medal in the steeplechase two years later – Bannister devised an even-paced three-and-a-quarter-lap schedule that would leave him to capitalise on his speed and strength in the final 350 or so yards.

On that momentous evening, with the stiff breeze moderating and the showers stopping barely an hour before the race, the plan worked. Brasher led for a metronomic two laps, Chataway for the next one, and a bit more. Bannister, always on the leader’s shoulder, needed to run the final quarter-mile in 59 seconds. He collapsed at the finish, and revived to hear another friend, the statistician Norris McWhirter, announce over the public address: “a track record, English Native record, British National, British All-Comers’, European, British Empire and World record; the time: three …” (the rest drowned out by cheering) “… minutes, 59.4 seconds.”

Hägg’s record had stood for almost nine years. Bannister’s lasted just 46 days before Landy, running from the front at a meeting in Turku, Finland, posted an astounding 3min 58sec, to set up the “Mile of the Century” at the British Empire Games (as they were still called) in Vancouver early in August. The two milers arrived in Canada to a media frenzy, and there was a real danger that the race itself would prove a dismal anticlimax. But their widely differing strategies ensured that the final, far from descending into a cat-and-mouse tactical duel, would produce one of the great confrontations in the sport’s history. Landy needed to run the finish out of Bannister; Bannister needed to run even-paced laps and conserve enough energy for the sustained power of his sprint.

Landy led from the gun, increased his lead as the first two laps progressed to seven yards, 10 yards, 15 yards at one point. Then gradually, halfway through the third lap, Landy began to slow and Bannister’s even stride pulled the gap tighter and tighter. By the bell he was back to Landy’s shoulder, but tired. At the end of the final bend he flung himself past Landy’s right shoulder just, as chance would have it, Landy glanced anxiously over his left. He was away, the Australian could not respond, and the Mile of the Century was Bannister’s. Both men, applauded to the skies by the packed stadium, had run under four minutes.

Roger Bannister, on May 6th 2004, with the original stopwatch used when recording the first sub four-minute mile. Photograph: Jamie McDonald/Getty
Roger Bannister, on May 6th 2004, with the original stopwatch used when recording the first sub four-minute mile. Photograph: Jamie McDonald/Getty

Bannister trained on for one final triumph at the end of August, a prestigious, hard-fought but ultimately comfortable victory in the European 1500 metres in Berne, Switzerland, in a championship record – a commanding exhibition from a thoroughly confident athlete in a week when he was the only British man to win a gold medal. And that was it. He never competed again.

Bannister, whose long career as a distinguished neurologist overlapped his short athletic career, was born in Harrow, north London, the son of Ralph Bannister, a worker from the depressed cotton towns of Lancashire who had landed a clerical post in the civil service in London, and his wife, Alice. The family was evacuated to Bath during the second world war, before moving back to London where Roger attended University College school, Hampstead. There, he played rugby, rowed a bit, and ran the legs off everyone else, older and younger; but he was equally enthusiastic about medicine; as a teenager he listed his role models as Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie and England’s favourite middle-distance runner, Sydney Wooderson.

Pushed hard by his school, he sat his university entrance exams at 16, and won a scholarship to begin medical studies at Exeter College, Oxford, in 1946. He was only 17, at a time when many of his fellow freshmen were experienced, sometimes battle-scarred, ex-servicemen. He took a BA in physiology before moving to St Mary’s hospital, London, for his clinical studies, having been awarded a scholarship by the dean, Lord Moran.

Willowy young upstart

As an athlete at Oxford, it said much for this shy, willowy young upstart that his fellow students embraced him without rancour. While still a teenager, he was elected president of the university athletic club and was instrumental in re-instituting the prewar athletics matches between joint teams from Oxford and Cambridge and America’s Ivy League universities. More significantly, he drove forward the conversion of Oxford’s running track from an uneven, 586-and-a-bit-yard (three laps to the mile) monster which, in the face of all received convention, was run clockwise, to a new flat, six-lane quarter-mile cinder track on which runners travelled the “right” way round.

By the time the track was opened in 1950, Bannister had established himself as the best mile and 1500m runner in Britain, with several important American and European scalps to his name. He was, without a doubt, among the favourites for the 1952 Olympic title at 1500m at Helsinki. However, he finished a disappointing fourth. Many observers concluded that, when faced with the supreme test, Bannister’s nerve had let him down. He certainly entered the final in a negative frame of mind – and with good reason.

In combining his work at St Mary’s with his build-up to the Games he had made do with the barest minimum of training, often no more than 35 minutes a day at lunchtime – very little in the 1950s; inconceivable today. This, he reckoned, would sustain his speed and strength over a heat, a rest day and a final. But the Olympic organisers not only added a semi-final to the schedule, but declared that the three rounds would be run on consecutive days. Bannister knew that his chances had plummeted and, just as he dreaded, his legs gave out after three laps of the final. To the press and the public and, to an extent, to himself, this was a failure. However, for Bannister, British athletics and history, it ended up being a merciful failure.

Roger Bannister representing Oxford University in 1948. Photograph: PA
Roger Bannister representing Oxford University in 1948. Photograph: PA

If he had won his gold medal at Helsinki, there is every chance that he would have retired from athletics there and then. Running was important and challenging, but medicine was paramount. As it was, he decided to stay in training for just one more two-year cycle: to aim for the Empire and the European championships of 1954, and prove, as much to himself as to the rest of the world, that he was indeed championship material.

He had passed his exams for his basic medical qualification – MRCS LRCP – a month after the victory over Landy in Vancouver. A year later, in 1955, he got his medical degrees of BM BCh, was appointed CBE, and published his first book, The First Four Minutes. From 1955 to 1957 he did his house physician and house surgeon jobs. The first was under the physician George Pickering at St Mary’s, who became a lifelong friend and whom, 30 years later, he succeeded as master of Pembroke College, Oxford. The second was in surgery at Oxford. This was followed by a spell back in London at the Hammersmith hospital under another eminent physician, John McMichael, and ending at the Brompton hospital under the brilliant cardiologist Paul Wood.

From 1957 to 1959 he did his national service, which he had delayed until he had passed the exams to obtain membership of the Royal College of Physicians and could enter in a specialist medical grade. For the first year he worked at the army hospital in Millbank, London, looking after senior officers.

Then he volunteered to go out to Aden, using his physiological experience to investigate deaths among young soldiers. He found that young soldiers were susceptible to potentially fatal infections if they were put through strenuous exercise before they had acclimatised. To prove this hypothesis he carried out research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and published the outcome in two Lancet papers.

Neurology

In 1959, when he left the army, he started his training in neurology as a registrar at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London. In 1962 he was awarded a Radcliffe travelling fellowship from Oxford University to Harvard University, where he spent a year doing research on oxygen shortage on blood circulation in the brain. On his return, he was appointed consultant neurologist at the Western Ophthalmic (now Eye) hospital and St Mary’s hospital in London. He remained there until 1985. During this time he became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. His particular research interest and expertise lay in the autonomic nervous system, which unconsciously controls all the automatic systems of the body from digestion to the heartbeat. In the course of this, he carried out research into Multiple System Atrophy (also known as Shy–Drager syndrome), a potentially fatal condition, finding that many patients benefited from sleeping with their heads raised.

As a consultant at two London teaching hospitals, he acquired a reputation not only for the effective treatment of patients, but also for his ability to organise resources and run medical committees. These talents soon led him to the higher realms of hospital administration.

In 1974, when he was 45, he was halted cruelly by a serious motor accident. He was in a car when it was hit by another that had crossed a motorway’s central reservation. Recovery was slow (he had difficulty in walking comfortably for the rest of his life); he abandoned all private practice and directed his energies towards his autonomic nervous system research, a speciality that had tended to fall between cardiology and neurology.

He founded the Autonomic Research Society, lectured widely in the US and Europe, and edited Autonomic Failure: A Textbook of Clinical Disorders of the Autonomic Nervous System, a standard work that ran into multiple editions (he co-edited later editions with Christopher Mathias). He was also editor of the textbook Clinical Neurology for several years. In 1975 he was knighted, and 10 years later returned to Oxford as master of Pembroke College, where he served until his retirement in 1993.

Nonetheless, he continued working as honorary consultant physician at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery. He was a rather formal person – though liked by his colleagues and juniors – and it is said that he arrived in his Daimler punctually at 9am and expected to see his house surgeon waiting for him at the door.

As chairman of the Sports Council (1971-74, now Sport England), he introduced the highly sensitive radio-immunoassay test for anabolic steroids. He was president of the International Council for Sport and Physical Recreation (1976-83), and served on many committees and advisory bodies including Oxford regional and district health authorities, a government working party on sports scholarships, and a Ministry of Health committee on drug dependence. As well as maintaining many of these activities well into his retirement, he wrote for the Sunday Times and for the American magazine Sports Illustrated.

Bannister returned to the Iffley Road track, now named after him, in 2012, bearing the Olympic torch. In 2014 he published his autobiography, Twin Tracks. The same year he revealed that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

In 1955 he married Moyra Jacobsson, an artist. She survives him, along with their two sons, two daughters and 14 grandchildren.

Roger Gilbert Bannister, athlete and neurologist, born March 23rd 1929; died March 3rd 2018

(Guardian service)

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