Roger Bannister: running the extra mileBMJ 2004; 329 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.329.7465.s100 (Published 04 September 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:s100
The recent 50th anniversary of the first four minute mile means that Britain's most famous former medical student has been in the headlines again. But what happened during his subsequent medical career? Peter Cross finds out
Recently, Sir Roger Bannister has been doing a lot of running around. Not physically, but metaphorically. A car crash in the 1970s left him unable to run, but he is still involved in sports administration and London's bid for the 2012 Olympics.
44 day record
Roger Bannister was a medical student at St Mary's, London, when he broke the four minute barrier for running a mile. His record only lasted 44 days but was a remarkable achievement.1 Athletes had been trying to break this barrier for years, yet the person who finally surmounted it was a committed medical student whose running and training took second place to medical studies. Roger won the 1500 metre race in the 1954 European Games, then turned his back on serious running to concentrate on the career he had always wanted.
When he was a child, medicine was his goal: “You know that you will always have a role, you give useful care to patients, cure a few, alleviate problems in a few, but underlying all this is science. And I was a scientist, a natural scientist, interested in biology and nature before I became dedicated to medicine. I was doing research and had already decided that I was going to study the brain, the most important organ. And I was one of the first recruits for a new course, which was called PPP—philosophy, psychology, and psychology.”
After his finals Roger got a scholarship at Exeter College, Oxford. “I did my two years' research and went to St Mary's. I was running and I was writing up my research and starting clinical work. Research was on how the brain controls and regulates breathing, its rate and depth. This area had not been studied for some time, and I was able to coordinate some factors that I knew about because of my running.”
Roger did national service in the army. He used this period to study heat illness in Aden, where there was nothing else to do but research. “They needed a physiologist to work out why they were dying—to answer questions such as `do the sweat glands get blocked?', `is the amount of salt they take wrong?', `do the sweat glands get fatigued?', `if you inject or give a drug, do you start making them start working again?'”⇓
A Radcliffe travelling scholarship followed, which took him to Harvard for a year.
The great disadvantage
Roger feels that running and the fame it brought was “a grave disadvantage for 10 years. People in academia looked down their noses at sports. They can't believe that somebody could get involved so deeply in something so trivial and unintellectual that he could consider a serious career in medicine.” Nevertheless he was made a consultant when he was only 33, nine years after qualifying as a doctor, but it was research rather than clinical work that maintained his interest. “After 20 years you have seen a lot of patients with headaches,” he asserts, “a lot of patients with tumours and a lot of patients with multiple sclerosis. Essentially, you work on automatic pilot. You are looking for unusual things, which is really what keeps you going because every patient is slightly different, and what you are trying to do is see where the next medical advance is coming from. In reading, and in the neurology textbook I was writing, I wanted to be up to date in areas in which I did not have a major interest.
The first edition of Roger Bannister's textbook Clinical Neurology came out in 1980; it is now in its fifth edition. A unit he helped set up is now a referral unit for the entire United Kingdom and places abroad. It has formed the basis for a world body, the International Clinical Autonomic Research Body. This has drawn together various talents and the experience he has developed from his physiology days: uniting physiology with neurology.
Making people happy
What, I wondered, did he think about his future. At this point his wife, who had sat quietly during the interview, interrupted. “I'll tell you what he does. He makes a whole wealth of people happy in Oxford and of course everywhere else. He has started a book reading group with former heads of Oxford colleges and former ambassadors, he's got a philosophy group, he's started a walking group, and he is still on St Mary's development trust.”