Sir Roger’s athletic achievements are well known and have been recorded in detail elsewhere. It had been thought that running a mile in under four minutes was impossible, but he managed to do it in May 1954, when a clinical medical student at St Mary’s. It is considered by many to have been the single most important moment in British sporting history. Soon afterwards, he retired from athletics to concentrate on his medical career. There was no difficulty at St Mary’s, but initially at the National Hospital, Queen Square, some of the senior physicians doubted if such a world class athlete and celebrity could become a proper neurologist. How wrong they were.
The son of Ralph Bannister, an accountant, and Alice Bannister (née Duckworth), he was educated at University College School and then entered Exeter College, Oxford, in 1947, aged only 17. Many of his year were considerably older, having been in the forces. Despite his youth, he was elected president of the Oxford University Athletic Club and took on organising the re-building of the Iffley Road Running Track, which was a major undertaking. He excelled at physiology and, after his degree, became a university physiology demonstrator at Merton College. He visited the spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and this triggered his interest in the neurological control of blood pressure. In 1951, he won a scholarship to St Mary’s Hospital Medical School to undertake his clinical training.
After qualifying in 1954, he was appointed as a house physician to the medical unit at St Mary’s under George Pickering [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.464], so his interest in the control of blood pressure was nurtured. He had other prestigious posts working for John McMichael [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.341] at Hammersmith and Paul Wood [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.456] at Brompton Hospital.
From 1957 to 1959, he carried out his National Service. Appropriately, he was placed in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was posted to Queen Alexandra’s Military Hospital at Millbank, as Lieutenant Bannister. While there, he passed the MRCP and was promoted to captain. For his second year in the Army he was posted to Aden. Here he was asked to look into why some apparently healthy soldiers were dying. His conclusions were that they were entering active service without adequate acclimatisation, were becoming salt-depleted and dehydrated, and then, if they developed a febrile illness, becoming dangerously hyperpyrexial. On returning to the UK, he continued his investigations at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Some of the experiments involved injecting himself with a bacterial preparation, before exercising in a hot chamber, triggering the predicted hyperpyrexia. (There were no ethics committees in those days!) This resulted in his first Lancet paper and the Army accepted his recommendations for improved acclimatisation, adequate fluids, salt tablets and prompt treatment in the field (‘Anhidrosis following intravenous bacterial pyrogen’ Lancet 1960 Jul 16;2:118-22).
After demobilisation, he started at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, as it was then known, and his neurological life began. After registrar jobs at Queen Square, he won a fellowship to Harvard under Derek Denny-Brown [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.146], before returning to London to a senior registrar post, again at the National.
In 1963, at the age of 34, he was appointed as a consultant to the National Hospital, St Mary’s and the Western Ophthalmic Hospital (succeeding Denis Brinton [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.45]).
Despite the other demands on him, he found time to be chairman of the medical committees at the National and St Mary’s. At the latter, he was in charge during the crucial phase of planning the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother wing. He was also consultant in charge of the Batten unit (the intensive therapy unit) at the National for several years. He found time to enjoy his undergraduate teaching at St Mary’s and postgraduate teaching at Queen Square, and gave considerable support to their extracurricular activities.
He was not allowed to devote himself to neurology entirely. There were frequent calls on his time. He was a very successful chairman of the Sports Council from 1971 to 1974 and president of the International Council of Sport and Physical Education from 1976 to 1983. From 1996 to 2007, he was patron of the British Association of Sport and Medicine. He initiated the first testing for anabolic steroids in sport. The Duke of Edinburgh invited him to join the steering group planning what was to become the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards Scheme. He was knighted for his contributions to sport in 1975.
He was a very popular, wise and helpful consultant colleague, whose patients adored him. As well as providing an excellent general neurological service, he developed autonomic investigation units at both the National and St Mary’s. He became an international expert on autonomic dysfunction. He founded the Clinical Autonomic Research Society and was its first chairman. With Christopher Matthias, he co-edited Autonomic failure: a textbook of clinical disorders of the autonomic nervous system (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1983). He wrote over 80 papers on autonomic problems often with other experts in the field, including P H Fentem, D M Greenfield, D R Oppenheimer and E G S Spokes. He gave over 60 presentations at international meetings. He supported patient groups and was patron of the Multi System Atrophy Trust. In 2015, he auctioned the running shoes in which he broke the four-minute mile. Christie’s estimated that they would fetch £50,000. In fact, they achieved £266,500, from which he made a major donation to the Autonomic Charitable Trust.
In 2005, he was given the American Academy of Neurology’s first lifetime achievement award in recognition of his contribution to our understanding of autonomic problems in various diseases.
Lord Brain [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.60] invited him to take over his very popular textbook Brain’s clinical neurology, which continued to be a standard book, particularly in preparing for the MRCP, through several editions and it became Brain and Bannister’s clinical neurology (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992).
In 1985 his career took an unexpected but welcome turn: he was invited to be master of Pembroke College, Oxford. With typical enthusiasm, he devoted himself to Pembroke for the next eight years, up to his retirement. More accommodation and facilities were needed. He was a very successful fundraiser and the impressive new buildings were completed. The new postgraduate centre has been named after him. He remained neurologically and autonomically in touch and was an honorary consultant neurologist to the Oxford Regional and District Health Authorities from 1985 to 1995.
After his retirement, he became a trustee of the St Mary’s Development Trust from 1994 to 1998 and then chairman from 1998 to 2006. In recognition of his contributions, Imperial College named a new lecture theatre after him.
The honours conferred on him were understandably numerous. Among them, he was made an honorary fellow of Exeter, Merton, Harris Manchester and Pembroke colleges, Oxford, and of Imperial College London and the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. He received honorary doctorates from, among others, Liverpool, Bath, Rochester, Pavia, Victoria, Wales, Loughborough, East Anglia and Manchester. He was particularly pleased to be made a Companion of Honour by HM the Queen in 2017.
In 2014 his autobiography, suitably entitled Twin tracks: the autobiography (London, the Robson Press) was published and was very well received.
Roger’s family was very important to him. He and Moyra (née Jacobsson) married in 1955 and they had four children, Erin, Clive, Thurstan and Charlotte, 14 grandchildren and one great granddaughter. Without Moyra’s help he would not have been able to contribute so much to hospital and academic life. Roger was the first to recognise this.
In recent years, Roger developed an extrapyramidal problem, diagnosed as atypical parkinsonism. He appreciated the irony of succumbing to a problem he had spent his professional life treating.
A great man, a lovely man, who enjoyed many long-lasting friendships. He was not at all ‘spoilt’ by his celebrity. He genuinely felt that his medical life was far more important than his athletic fame. He lived a life worth living. Many of us have been greatly enriched by having known him and will be forever grateful.
The Association of British Neurologists is creating a Sir Roger Bannister clinical research training fellowship in recognition of his enormous contribution.
[St Mary’s Hospital Gazette, 1964 70 47; BBC News Obituary: Roger Bannister 4 March 2018 www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11764114 – accessed 12 April 2018; The Guardian 4 March 2018 www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/mar/04/sir-roger-bannister-obituary – accessed 12 April 2018; The Telegraph 4 March 2018 www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2018/03/04/sir-roger-bannister-obituary/ – accessed 12 April 2018; The Times 5 March 2018 www.thetimes.co.uk/article/sir-roger-bannister-3mhd5xwzh – accessed 12 April 2018; The Scotsman 6 March 2018 www.scotsman.com/news/obituaries/obituary-sir-roger-bannister-neurologist-and-the-man-who-broke-the-four-minute-mile-1-4700670 – accessed 12 April 2018; The Independent 6 March 2018 www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/sir-roger-bannister-obituary-four-minute-mile-athletics-academic-neurology-nervous-system-a8239301.html – accessed 12 April 2018; Imperial College London Obituary Sir Roger Bannister CH 1929-2018 5 March 2018 www.imperial.ac.uk/news/185134/obituary-sir-roger-bannister-ch-1929-2018/ – accessed 12 April 2018]