A breath of fresh air by a four-minute miler

September 22, 1995

If Andy Warhol was right that everyone is famous for 15 minutes, Roger Bannister might legitimately feel cheated. An eminent neurologist, co-author of a standard medical textbook and former Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, he is defined by three minutes 59.4 seconds on Iffley Road race track in Oxford in May 1954. Last week he hit the headlines again, when he told a gathering of scientists at the British Association that black athletes seemed to have natural anatomical or physiological advantages over their white counterparts.

It was a statement from a man who, in 1954 not only broke the four-minute mile barrier but also published his first research in the field of physiology.

By the end of 1954 Bannister had retired from the track and, newly qualified as a junior doctor, was working at St Mary's Hospital, London. His first publications, appearing in the Journal of Physiology, recounted work started in 1950 when he joined Oxford's Physiology Laboratory, having completed the pre-clinical stage of his medical training. He joined the human physiology group to study breathing during exercise.

"At that stage," he explains, "human physiology was regarded as rather exciting. The question of the regulation of breathing was a subtle, complex, problem involving the interaction of biochemistry and physiology." And Bannister, famously photographed gasping for breath at Iffley, had his own reasons for being interested.

"Knowing that I was interested in neurology ultimately, I chose the question of how pH, carbon dioxide and oxygen regulate the depth and frequency of breathing - a classic problem. The first stage was to build a treadmill." This had to be made in the laboratory workshop. He also had a separate piece of apparatus for extracting carbon dioxide and oxygen. "This equipment for measuring the samples used mercury to push the gas in and out of the chamber. I can remember that I was in an enclosed space and that doing this manipulation involved great exposure to mercury vapour." In the days before mass spectrometry automated the procedures, each sample of gas took 20 minutes to analyse and it could take three days to complete the analyses for one experiment.

Alongside which, Bannister had his own training schedule. He was very organised. "I would fit my training into half or three quarters of an hour each day right through this period." It throws the histrionics of present day sham-amateurism into sharp relief.

The subjects on the treadmill included Bannister, his supervisor, the laboratory technician and Norris McWhirter, of Guinness Book of Records fame but then an international sprinter. However, fitness was not the prime requisite. "The observations that I was making were not related to athleticism, they were simply related to exercise." Bannister could adjust the gradient of the treadmill so that each of them reached exhaustion after a similar time. Then he started feeding them with different concentrations of oxygen to investigate the effect. Where they had been reaching breaking point after six/eight minutes, this time was doubled or more when he fed them air with 66 per cent oxygen, rather than the normal 21 per cent. The paper from these experiments (Journal of Physiology vol. 125, pp. 118-1) records drily that McWhirter "would have been prepared to run indefinitely had he not had to catch a train".

When Bannister switched to pure oxygen, however, their performance dropped. McWhirter, for example, ran for 23 minutes on 66 per cent oxygen without reaching his breaking point. With pure oxygen, he was exhausted after seventeen minutes. It was a result that Bannister could not fully explain although he suggests in the paper (co-authored by his supervisor, D. J. C. Cunningham) that it might be related to the circulation of blood around the brain: another link with his neurological interests.

But it had some practical consequences too: "It was a year or 18 months before Everest was climbed. The Everest team had not got any expert on breathing. They appointed a climber called Griffiths Pugh who came up to Oxford to learn the techniques which would later be useful on Everest. I also put, out of interest, one or two of the Everest team on the treadmill. I was very much struck by the fact that these climbers were unfit by athletics standards."

He went on to qualify as a neurologist, eventually becoming a consultant. "I developed a specialist interest in the autonomic nervous system and the regulation of blood pressure, which I think does go back to my early work in physiology." He has written a textbook on diseases of the autonomic nervous system, and took over the updating of Clinical Neurology in 1969. Their influence should last just a bit longer than 3 mins 59.4 secs.

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