Intended for healthcare professionals


Roger Gilbert Bannister: innovative neurologist and the first athlete to run a mile in less than four minutes

BMJ 2018; 361 doi: (Published 10 April 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;361:k1589
  1. Matt Limb
  1. Croydon, UK
  1. limb{at}
Credit: PA

Sir Roger Bannister was a towering figure in the history of British sport and medicine. He was the first athlete to run a mile in less than four minutes, a feat some thought impossible in 1954, when Bannister was a 25 year old medical student, training mostly between lectures. But subsequent achievements would matter to him more.

He became a consultant at 34, was a groundbreaking neurologist, and in the 1970s led the fight against drugs in sport, developing tests for anabolic steroids as head of the Sports Council. He was knighted in 1975 and made a Companion of Honour in the 2017 New Year’s Honours. But he was never spoilt by fame, say those who knew and worked with him over many years. “He was a lovely man with many friends. Many of us have been greatly enriched by having known him and will be forever grateful,” says neurologist Dafydd Thomas.

Autonomic research

Bannister specialised in understanding and treating disorders of the autonomic nervous system, which controls all the automatic functions of the body—such as heartbeat, blood pressure, and digestion. Patients with autonomic failure can experience debilitating problems, including fainting caused by inability to maintain blood pressure to the brain.

Credit: Anne Katrin Purkiss/REX/Shutterstock

Christopher Mathias, who began collaborating with Bannister at St Mary’s Hospital in 1981, and at times struggled to keep up with his long stride on ward rounds, says, “Roger was a pioneer in clinical autonomic work. Before then, the science hadn’t really been applied to patients.

“These were the patients who felt faint when they stood up, they had what’s called postural hypotension. It was grossly under-recognised because very few were having blood pressure taken lying and standing,” says Mathias, who is emeritus professor at University College London.

Bannister developed autonomic investigation units in London at both the National Hospital for …

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