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If you like Roger Bannister's story, you might also like:
Tenley Albright,
Ben Carson,
Edmund Hillary,
Richard Leakey,
Oliver Sacks,
Herschel Walker
and Chuck Yeager

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Sir Roger Bannister
Sir Roger Bannister
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Sir Roger Bannister Interview (page: 8 / 8)

Track and Field Legend

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  Sir Roger Bannister

People spoke about the four-minute mile as a metaphor for how we can push through barriers and limitations. Did you realize at the time how significant it had been?

Sir Roger Bannister: I really didn't. I regarded it as something which was rather personal. It was British. We were patriotic. An English and European and Australian and New Zealand team, really an Empire team, had climbed Everest the year before. I actually had an attempt the year before, just before the coronation, in the comparable May meeting. It was just a feel it was conceivable. But I ran in 4 minutes, 3.8 seconds. So, it took another year for me to improve and get the pacing right.

When you retired from running, it sounds very calm and very definite. Was it difficult?

Sir Roger Bannister Interview Photo
Sir Roger Bannister: No, because I was set for it. My core, my whole life was medicine. I wanted to become a specialist. So for ten years I concentrated solely on medicine. It took ten years to become a consultant in neurology. I had a spell in the army, which was necessary then. Fifteen years later, I was asked to be the chairman of the British Sports Council. That has really been the pattern since. Alongside my neurology, I have always had some public involvement in sports and sports promotion.

Immediately after I retired I was a resident. I had married by then, and started having a family. I remember that my salary was 800 pounds a year in residency, with deductions for laundry. So I was fortunate enough to be able to write. I wrote regularly for a leading newspaper, the Sunday Times, mainly on sport, and went to the Olympics, and also wrote regularly for Sports Illustrated, whose first edition was brought out on the occasion of my race against John Landy in Vancouver in the Empire Games

I wrote a book, to get off my chest a number of ideas about what running could mean for people who needed to find something for themselves in adolescence, something which gave them a feeling that life was moving forwards and not backwards. I wrote the book in about six weeks, and the book was well received, but that was the end of my running career. Of course, I came back later to do government work encouraging sports for others but...

Now I had to sink to the bottom of the pile, graduating as a medical student, and I had to do my residencies, and it was a very difficult time in which I had to turn down all the engagements, work for these further exams, catching up on things that I had not been diligent enough to pursue earlier. And my colleagues and my teachers, of course, had some difficulties in dealing with me because I was famous, notorious, infamous, whichever phrase you like to use. And the concept that I could also have a serious career -- and indeed in a very highly competitive field like neurology -- was really rather strange to them. There were those who supported me, but I certainly felt I was being examined rather carefully and had to be more careful than others to start writing medical papers and pass the exams as speedily as I could, and select the appointments.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

There's something quite individual about the way somebody specializing tries to work at particular hospitals with particular individuals in order to increase his experience in the clinical field. We are now talking of clinical medicine, looking after patients, trying to find some area within the field you have chosen where there is a possible advance to be made.

That is essentially what young clinical neurologists are attempting to do. I had to spend two years in the army, which I managed to distort in my favor by using my physiological background to find out why unacclimatized troops were dying in the Middle East. We had a problem in Aden after the Suez crisis. That was a partial distraction, but I wrote some papers about heat illness, all the time trying to make the best of what opportunities were presented. This takes me through a visit to Harvard for a year to get further training.

At the age of 33 I was appointed a consultant at two major London hospitals. In those days, neurology being a super specialty in a small country, the patients that weren't acutely sick would be sent to London.

The most important point I should make is that after retiring from the track I got married in 1955 and we started to have a family. My wife had three children by the time we went to America. So this was a time of consolidation, family life which I could only share to a limited extent because I was still doing my residency appointments. My children remember me working on holidays, when I'd accepted the editorship of a neurological textbook.

Those were years of very hard work, but very happy years because my life was expanding through my wife and my family. She had to work very hard and we turned down invitations all the time, which was rather frustrating, and it would not have been possible if she had not been able to take over that whole side of family life.

Without making a false analogy between sports and scientific research, did you find yourself applying some of the athletic mentality to the pursuit of your goals as a medical scientist?

Sir Roger Bannister: Well, sport is simple. It's black and white. It's very limited.

Medicine is complex. Indescribably difficult. It involves collaboration. There aren't lonely peaks. I mean, there are Nobel Laureates who work on one particular subject in isolation and are so clever that they are able to perceive what others cannot. And I was, of course, not that kind of a scientist, and clinical medicine is not like that, and I knew this. I knew it, and I chose it, because I felt that the capacity to apply yourself to be alert to new developments, and to be prepared to spend the time writing papers, would lead to a fascinating life in which a reputation would be created for hard work, for -- one hopes -- kindness and effectiveness in dealing with patients and clinical problems, and then ultimately the kind of problems of organizing medical committees and having a responsibility thrust upon one by colleagues who wished one to undertake particular duties of this kind.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Gradually, administration begins to come into the equation, but after a car accident when I was 45 -- which I had quite severe injuries -- it wasn't my fault, but there we are. I was badly injured and I had a time to rethink. And I was then getting too busy in too many directions. I was being asked to see more private patients and so on, and I made the conscious decision then that I wouldn't do any more private practice and there was already an area of research, the autonomic nervous system, which was relatively neglected. It was between cardiology and neurology, and these areas in between are often the province of neither specialty, and so can lag behind. And that was the area I chose and this changed the second half of my life, if you like, because I then set up a laboratory.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Sir Roger Bannister Interview Photo
At that stage there were no methods of testing for diseases of the autonomic nervous system. We saw all kinds of patients who might have these kinds of diseases and created a battery of tests. At the same time, the method of assaying chemicals like noradrenaline that are released by nerve endings were being developed, so one had a direct biochemical way of measuring the activity of this system. I developed it with colleagues in London at the same time that NIH in Bethesda were also doing it. I was near the leading edge, and set up Autonomic Research Society. Now there are similar research societies in the United State and other countries.

At this time I was traveling very widely and speaking at medical conferences on these areas, and I wrote the first textbook on diseases of the autonomic nervous system. It's now in its fourth edition.

You returned to Oxford as Master of Pembroke College. Were you at Pembroke as an undergraduate?

Sir Roger Bannister: No I hadn't, but if you've been in Oxford you understand the place. There are 30 different colleges and they all work in rather similar ways. They have their points of interest and fame; Pembroke College happened to be the college of Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Could you tell us about your activity with the Sports Council?

Sir Roger Bannister: In Britain the government have always been interested in the public's attention to recreation, going back 50 or 60 years. It's thought to be part of a full life. And yet the general population have not had the opportunity to take part in sport.
Sir Roger Bannister Interview Photo
There are very few swimming pools and sport centers. So a Sports Council was set up in 1964, and I was a member of that original council to remedy these defects. I became the chairman when it was given independence like our Arts Council. This is a kind of public involvement which does not exist in the United States. After I served my term as chairman, I chaired some committees to look at problems like whether university students had the opportunity to take part in sports. We started a campaign called Sport for All. That was a slogan but it drew attention to the fact that sports should not be the province of any small group and we weren't concerned as much with Olympic gold medals as with the opportunities for all. That has continued to be a very important part of my life. In a way it may be of more long-term significance than anything else.

If everyone has a chance, then those who have particular skills, may be more likely to burst their way through, through their ambition and hard work. I remembered this from my own youth. This process has continued. We have just had the Olympic Games in Sydney and for a small country we have been surprisingly successful. It's not being jingoistic to want your country to do well.

There is another aspect that I am very worried about: the corruption which has followed professionalism and the abuse of drugs. When I was chairman of this Sports Council we set up the first testing program for anabolic steroids, still the testing that's used, but there are other drugs that have come along. The International Olympic Committee and other world bodies have not been as diligent as they should have been in trying to keep the testing up-to-date. It has been bad news for them and for their organizations and their sponsorships. I feel strongly about that.

Sir Roger, thank you very much for speaking with us.

You're welcome.

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