Back in 1995 I interviewed a number of eminent people about their first academic publications as part of an occasional series for the Times Higher Education Supplement. I wrote about one of the more daunting of these in “An encounter with Enoch Powell”. The hour or so I spent with Sir Roger Bannister, who died a couple of days ago, could not have been more different. He was best known for three minutes 59.4 seconds on a running track in Oxford in May 1954 but went on to have a successful career as a neurologist and eventually became master of Pembroke College, Oxford. He was, despite this sporting and academic prowess, one of the most charming people I have met.
One of the secrets of his success on the running track was that he was, to all intents and purposes, a sports scientist before that term had been coined. He took time out from his medical degree to do research on the physiology of breathing and, more particularly, how the point of exhaustion could be delayed by feeding his subjects with different concentrations of oxygen. As a medical student working in straightened times just after the war, his first task was to build his own equipment, including the treadmill on which he and an assortment of colleagues and friends ran in order to generate the data he needed. Building this kit involved trips to RAF bases to strip meters and other parts from decommissioned bombers (John Hapgood, former Archbishop of York and also a physiologist by training told me a very similar story).
Whilst his experiments were not directly relevant to his running (his actual training time amounted to less than an hour a day), there was, clearly, a benefit from understanding how his body worked. However, whilst a runner cannot alter the concentration of oxygen that he breathes, a mountaineer can, and Bannister’s work was used by the team that conquered Everest the following year (he commented that he was surprised at how unfit some of the Everest team were by the standards of track runners).
Whatever his other achievements, however, it was that afternoon in Oxford in May 1954 that defined Roger Bannister. Three minutes 59 seconds works out at just over a quarter of Andy Warhol’s quotient of fifteen minutes of fame and would have ensured Bannister’s place in the history books. However, as the obituaries in the newspapers show, he achieved far more than that in his life. And he was a gentleman too.
If you have the patience to battle with News International’s paywall, you can read my original article by following this link.