Sir Roger Bannister will become first athlete to receive Westminster Abbey memorial – but for his work as scientist rather than pioneer of the four-minute mile.
In 1954 as a 25-year-old medical student he ran one mile in the record-breaking time of 3 minutes 59.4 seconds at a track in Oxford. But the athlete knighted for his sporting heroics said he would “rather be remembered for my work in neurology than my running”, and it is as a scientist that he will be commemorated with a memorial in Westminster Abbey.
The expert in nervous system problems, who died aged 88 in 2018, will be honoured with a ledger stone in Scientists’ Corner alongside the graves of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.
The Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd Dr David Hoyle, said: “Throughout his life Sir Roger Bannister reached out for that which lay beyond. As a sportsman, pushing himself towards a prize some considered beyond human reach, as a scientist ever eager for deeper understanding of neurology.
“We are delighted that his memory and his achievement will be set in stone in the Abbey. He ran the race set before us all.”
Sir Roger came fourth in 1,500 meters at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, setting a British record for the event in the process, then used his lack of a medal to spur him to refocus on running a mile in under four minutes.
He achieved this in May 1954 at Oxford’s Iffley Road Track, with the help of his pacesetters and future gold medalists Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher. That same year he also won gold at the European Champions in Bern and at the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver.
By the time he was knighted for his services to sport in 1975 he had enjoyed a long career in medicine, which included penning more than 80 scientific papers, and which he considered more important than his on-track exploits.
He said in 2014: “I worked in medicine for sixty years. I ran for about eight."
Sir Roger Bannister holding a pair of his running shoes in 1974
Credit: Chris Ridley/Radio Times via Getty Images
“If you offered me the chance to make a great breakthrough in the study of the autonomic nerve system, I’d take that over the four-minute mile right away.”
His son Clive Bannister believes that his father’s two passions can both be celebrated together at Westminster Abbey. He said: “It is very moving for everyone in our family that my father should be given a permanent memorial in this sacred place.
“In sport one ambition he fulfilled was to show people how much they could achieve if they rejected artificial barriers. His medical and athletic careers were interwoven.
Sir Roger Bannister crosses the tape at the end of his record-breaking mile run at Iffley Road, Oxford
Credit: Norman Potter/Central Press/Getty Images
“He sought to bring more people into sport at every level as an enduring source of health and fulfilment.
“My hope is that when individuals view this memorial in future they will draw inspiration from it in their own lives by reflecting on the essence of his: the full use of his gifts for the betterment of others.”
While Sir Roger is the only athlete to be honoured in this way in Westminster Abbey, he is not the only figure of the more than 3000 people buried or memorialised at the site to have connections to sport. The Abbey also holds the grave of John Broughton, who was known as a champion bare-knuckle pugilist in the 18th century.