Sir Roger Gilbert Bannister (1929 – 2018)
Correspondence Address: Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None DOI: 10.4103/0028-3886.236977
Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None
'On the day he broke the 4 minute mile, Bannister worked his usual shift at St Mary's Hospital, where he was a medical student, before sharpening his racing spikes and taking the mid-morning train from Paddington to Oxford. The race billed as 'The Miracle Mile' took place at 6pm, watched by around 3,000 spectators.'
'I'd rather be remembered for my work in neurology than my running. If you offered me the chance to make a great breakthrough in the study of the autonomic nerve system, I'd take that over the four minute mile right away. I worked in medicine for sixty years. I ran for about eight. I enjoy my life now but I'm not very mobile. I have something called Parkinson's Disease and unfortunately that restricts me.'
Born in Harrow, Middlesex on 29 March 1929, he won a scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford. He studied medicine in Oxford University before going to St Mary's Hospital Medical School in London.
It would be an understatement to state that he had an eventful period as an undergraduate, for in 1954, he became an international celebrity.
Always fond of running, he was in training for the one-mile race, and from 1951, he trained at his medical school.
The first week of May 1954 changed Bannister's life in more ways than one. The tale of how he ran the mile in under four minutes is well known. On the day before the race, he met Moyra Jacobsson, an artist and the daughter of Per Jacobsson, the Swedish economist who became managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Moyra Jacobsson and Dr. Bannister married the next year.
Bannister enjoyed pointing out that she did not really understand the implications of his feat. 'For a time,' he said, 'my wife thought I had run four miles in one minute.' He felt that she was not impressed. He was pleasantly surprised that he had become much faster as the years progressed, when he heard his 5-year-old grandson boast, 'My grandpa can run a mile in under 4 seconds.'
As Dr. Bannister pointed out, this feat was achieved while on a limited diet, for the war-time rationing in Britain had just ended then. Dr. Norman Jones, his contemporary at St Mary's in 1954, recalled: 'I have such a clear memory of the excitement surrounding his achievement. It was the centenary year of the founding of the Hospital, with a succession of celebrations that included the Queen placing a time capsule in the foundations of a new wing. The capsule contained symbols of the achievements of the hospital's 100 years. I can remember only two of these – a Petri dish containing a culture of Penicillium notatum, and a stop watch registering 3 mins 59.4 secs.'
Dr. Bannister joined St. Mary's Hospital in 1955 as a resident. You will recall that this hospital had amongst its grey eminences, Sir William Broadbent, Sir John Burdon-Sanderson, Sir Almroth Wright, Sir Alexander Fleming, Augustus Waller and Sir Bernard Spilsbury. Bannister served as house physician to Sir George Pickering FRCS. Pickering had discovered renin in 1936 and his unit continued its interest in the mechanisms leading to systemic arterial hypertension. The next year, Dr. Bannister moved to Hammersmith Hospital where he served as senior house officer to Sir John McMichael. In 1957, he was senior house officer to Professor Paul Wood, the eminent cardiologist at the Brompton Hospital.
From 1957 to 1959, after obtaining membership of the Royal College of Physicians, he did his national service. He investigated deaths among young soldiers in Aden and found that they were susceptible to potentially fatal infections if they were put through strenuous exercise before they had acclimatized.
He told an interviewer from The Guardian that he had always wanted to become a neurologist, which he regarded as one of the most demanding vocations in medicine. 'Where do you stop, after all, with the brain? How does it function? What are its limits? The work seems unending.'
He started his training in neurology as a registrar at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in Queen Square in 1959. When asked why he did not become a neurosurgeon, he is reported to have said, 'The interesting thing for me was deciding where the tumor was – rather than taking it out.'
In 1962, he was awarded a Radcliffe travelling fellowship to Harvard University, where he spent a year doing research on oxygen deprivation in the brain.
On his return, he was appointed as consultant neurologist to St Mary's Hospital and the Western Eye Hospital.
His interest in the control of blood pressure came from his observations on patients with spinal injuries at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. For over a quarter century, he worked on autonomic disorders, starting with syncope at St. Mary's Hospital and at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases at Queen Square. He got an old motorized tilt-table from the radiology department to study the effects of posture on blood pressure and the production of syncopal attacks.
Dr. Christopher Mathias, who collaborated with Bannister in these studies said that at times he struggled to keep up with Dr. Bannister's long stride on ward rounds. He summed up Dr. Bannister's contributions to the subject: 'Roger was a pioneer in clinical autonomic work. Before then, the science hadn't really been applied to patients.'
In 1969, Dr. Bannister edited Brain's Clinical Neurology. In 1990, the book was renamed Brain and Bannister's Clinical Neurology.
He served as chairman of the editorial board of Clinical Autonomic Research. Along with Dr. Christopher Mathias, he edited Autonomic Failure, a textbook on clinical disorders of the autonomic nervous system. It is noteworthy that this book featured chapters by three Indians: Dr. Abhay Bajpai, Dr. Soumendra Datta (from London, England) and Dr. Sudhansu Chokroverty (from New York, USA).
He also served as the Director of the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London. He was a founding trustee of the Autonomic Charitable Trust and donated the proceeds from the auction of his sub-four minute mile running shoes – termed by Dr. Mathias as 'the most famous footwear in athletics' – to it.
Dr. Roger Banister undertook a visit to India for attending a meeting organised by Dr. B. Ramamurthi at the Institute of Neurology in Madras. The photograph [Figure 1] shows him and Dr. Gajendra Sinh (the Head of Neurosurgery Department at Sir JJ Hospital and Grant's Medical College, Mumbai) at the Madras Snake farm. This farm was set up by Mr. Romulus Whitaker and was then sited at Selaiyur village, a suburb of Madras.
In 1975, Dr. Bannister suffered a head-on automobile crash that almost killed him. He was unable to run after his recovery. He spent his enforced period of rest thinking about his work and what he wanted to do to develop a better understanding of the autonomic nervous system.
An experience at Leeds Castle before a dinner honoring the patron, Princess Alexandra, illustrates the insensitivity that has overtaken our profession. Dr. Bannister experienced sudden giddiness and noted an irregular pulse. He got himself taken to a nearby hospital. His wife told the senior nurse in the emergency department, 'He's a doctor and he knows what's the matter. He thinks he's fibrillating.' The nurse replied, 'That makes no difference. He'll have to wait his turn.' His pulse resumed its normal rhythm the next day,
In later life, he was confined to a wheelchair due to the 'subsequent shadow' of Parkinson's disease.
He received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association of Neurologists in 2005 for his contribution to neurology. He was knighted in 1975 and made a Companion of Honour in the 2017 New Year's Honours.
Dr. Bannister succumbed to pneumonia on 3 March 2018, in Oxford, at the age of 88 years. The funeral service in St Mary the Virgin Church was led by his daughter, the Reverend Charlotte Bannister Parker.
On 4 March 2018, Keith Humphreys related his favourite anecdote on Bannister:
'Many people don't realize that his achievements didn't end after his famous athletic feat. He went on to become a prominent and respected neurologist who mentored a number of my London-based colleagues. One of them was training in internal medicine, and Sir Roger was teaching a resident doctor who was doing a mini-rotation on neurology. She was struggling and he had to give her some feedback.
He: “You simply spend too long with each patient. You will never have as much time in everyday practice as you spent with that head injury case this morning. Just make a quick initial assessment and refer the patient on to neurology if you suspect serious damage.”
She: “I needed the 30 minutes to be sure.”
He: “In practice, you will have to do at least 15 of these screenings in an hour.”
She (getting irritated): “I can't do a neurological screening in just 4 minutes!”
He (with a kind smile): “You might be surprised what you can accomplish in 4 minutes.” '