On this day in 1954, at the Iffley Road Track in Oxford, England, medical student Roger Bannister becomes the first person in recorded history to run the mile in under four minutes.
Roger Bannister was born in Middlesex on March 23, 1929. His parents couldn’t afford to send him to school, so he ran his way in: Bannister won a track scholarship to Oxford, where he studied medicine and was a running sensation. He caused a furor in England when he declined to run the 1500 meters in the 1948 London Olympics so he could concentrate on his medical studies. He did run in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, but finished fourth. Again, the British press scorned him. He then resolved to break track and field’s most famous barrier, the four-minute mile, a feat many believed to be impossible. Bannister had limited time to train, as he was enrolled at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School. He would run 30 minutes most days, focusing the rest of his time on his study of neurology.
On May 6, 1954, Bannister was running for the Amateur Athletic Association in Oxford against runners from the university in their annual match. He ran with two friends, who paced him, and then sprinted the last 200 yards, for a record time of 3:59.4. Later that month, Australian John Landy broke Bannister’s record by less than a second. The two were then made out to be rivals.
In August, Bannister and Landy met face-to-face at the British Empire Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, where 35,000 spectators watched what was billed as the “mile of the century.” Landy led Bannister the entire race, but Bannister out-sprinted Landy down the straightaway to win by five yards and less than a second, 3:58.8 to 3:59.6. Their two times were the third and fourth recorded miles run in under four minutes in history.
Bannister finished his medical degree and became a practicing neurologist and neuroscience researcher. Knighted in 1975, Sir Roger Bannister served as director of the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London.
Long after his career as a runner had ended, in an interview with Bill Heine of BBC’s Radio Oxford, Bannister called running a “powerful source of self expression” and said of his talent on the track, “I believe that as I grew up through adolescence, this capacity to run without pain or discomfort became part of me, and it found its expression in running in cross country races, running with friends, for the sheer enjoyment running across the countryside. Running, not walking, and, eventually this became a track event with more and more people watching and people concerned with stopwatches.”