A lifelong hero of mine, Roger Bannister, recently passed away at Oxford, England. This prompted me to mull the impact he has had on my life.
When I was barely eight years old, I recall his signature athletic accomplishment- breaking the four minute mile. At the time this feat was believed humanly impossible, simply beyond the level of human endurance.
I was stunned by the magnitude of his phenomenal and near mystical accomplishment. Humans can push themselves beyond expected limitations.
In 1954 Roger Bannister worked as a medical student in London. On May 6, 1954 after putting in his usual shift at St. Mary’s Hospital, he caught an early train to Oxford, had lunch with friends, and met up with two trackmates: Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher. Chataway and Brasher had been recruited as pacers to assist him in breaking the four minute mile. The day was damp and blustery, not conducive to be sure for going after a world record. Only about 1200 people showed up at Oxford’s Iffley track to watch Bannister’s effort, but an effort that soon would be heralded world-wide.
The gun went off and his valiant, gutsy attempt began. At one early point in the race, Roger Bannister tried to speed up Brasher’s pace but Brasher kept his head, maintaining the steady pace needed to achieve the ultimate goal. One lap, two laps, three laps passed.
Bannister was known for his great finishing kick so that when his pace man finally spun off at the beginning of the final lap, Bannister threw back his head, pumped his arms furiously, and ate up the remaining distance with his long strides. His finishing time turned out to be an astounding 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. He had done it! Following his incredible exertion Bannister collapsed into the arms of his teammates.
As a youth I loved to run and in fact had a habit of running everywhere. Bannister’s achievements later inspired my own less impressive track efforts. But I found after an active early youth, a strange thing happening.
Following an unusual illness rather than being able to run long distances any longer, I found myself running out of breath much too early. I had speed but no endurance. Oftentimes as a young boy, I would register a fit of coughing so severe as to collapse me to my knees. There I would stay until able to stabilize my heavy breathing and be able to regain my feet.
I didn’t understand why my stamina, particularly my respiratory function, was less than others and me previously. (Parenthetically I never was able to explain my lack of endurance to my college track coach who determined at the beginning of every track season to have me run a quarter of a mile. This always ended with me becoming sick following the ill conceived attempt.)
Years later when in medical school, I was skin tested and found to have suffered a Battey bacillus infection, an infection similar to pulmonary tuberculosis but not so infectious. I can only assume this sneaky little mycobacterium led to my lack of lung endurance.
It became clear early on that if I was to be a runner, it would not be at distance. I suppose that’s why I became a sprinter and a broad jumper, knowing that anything beyond an eighth of a mile simply wasn’t possible for me.
To the surprise of the world, shortly after setting the world record at the mile, Roger Bannister retired from the sport of track. I found his stepping away from track quite shocking. In retrospect he did so, I presume, to focus on what he valued more greatly than track, that is becoming a clinical and research neurologist. He simply walked away from distance running after having accomplished what he had set out to do. His willingness to focus on what he saw as most important in his life made a lasting impression on me.
I attended university and began my own premedical training. Although I had been recruited out of high school to run track in college, I had made the decision to focus my efforts entirely on my dream of becoming a doctor. A visit from the track coach at Texas Tech and his substantial urging along with the offer of a much needed athletic scholarship soon saw me back wearing track shoes. For the next two years I was fortunate to letter in track and field and help the Texas Tech team win some meets including second in the southwest conference meet. It was then I had to face a serious decision of my own.
During my junior year my premedical studies would require five afternoon science laboratories that didn’t even let out till past 5:00 pm. If I were to practice track, it would be on my own in the evenings working out when I needed to be studying for the following day’s classes. I faced a decision as to whether to change my curriculum or else give up track.
The decision was an easy one for me to make although not without causing a sense of loss for my lost sport and my teammates. In the same way that Roger Bannister had exemplified, I gave up track and plowed my efforts full on into becoming a physician, and yes, like Bannister a neurologist.
It was years later during several training stints at the National Hospital (Queen Square) in London that I came across Roger Bannister again and this time in person. He would occasionally provide a lecture in the musty old lecture halls of Queen Square on a neurological topic- various aspects of Multiple Sclerosis, as I recall. He came across as tall, austere, and frankly rather humorless individual. I later learned he was actually painfully shy. Little did he know that one of the nameless faces in that auditorium had admired him for so long and from so far away.
My own career paralleled Bannister’s but in a less storied fashion. I too became a clinical and research neurologist. Like Bannister I was seduced by the mysteries of the brain and what all it was capable of performing. My special interests rather than relating to Multiple Sclerosis centered on Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
Perhaps the commonalities we shared with both track and neurology explain my sense of personal loss over Roger Bannister’s death. He provided for me inspiration in athletics and blazed a pathway into Neurology.
In your life Roger Bannister, you raced to the adulation of an entire world. You then performed the intellectual work of research into the mysteries of brain illnesses. You have now run your race and you ran it ever so well. It was at times a sprint and at others a distance run but always with good humor and respect for others. Thank you Sir Roger. God speed!