Sir Roger Bannister, CH, CBE

4th March 2018

It is with great sadness that Pembroke College heard of the death of former Master, Sir Roger Bannister.

Born in 1929 in Harrow, Roger Bannister came up to Oxford in 1946 to study Medicine at Exeter College.  It was eight years later, while practising as a junior doctor, that he famously made history by running the first sub-four minute mile (in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds).  His talents on the track brought him to the attention of many, but his professional career as a neurologist was no less distinguished.  In combining his passion for running with his outstanding physiological learning his contribution to both was immeasurably enhanced. 

At Pembroke Sir Roger will particularly be remembered for the great contribution made during his term of leadership.  He took up the Mastership in 1985, making his Declaration to the then College Visitor, the Right Honourable Harold Macmillan. In his first Master’s Notes for The College Record, he observed that although the Fellows of the College had led him to believe they considered him as a Master ideally placed to advance the College’s academic standing, he himself foresaw his role as addressing the issue of fundraising. 

Two years later, the foundation stone of the New Building, which was to become the Geoffrey Arthur Building (GAB), was laid by Senator Richard Lugar, former Rhodes Scholar, at a ceremony attended by the new University Chancellor, and College Visitor, Lord Jenkins.  The scale of the project drew comparisons with the vision of former Master, Frances Jeune, under whose Mastership Chapel Quad and the College Hall were constructed.  The impact of the new buildings on completion, in 1989, was manifest, but there was to be no resting on laurels as in 1990 planning had already started with a view to expanding the College site to neighbouring Brewer Street.  This new annex was eventually embraced within a major project two decades later which saw The Rokos Quad, complete with transformational new facilities and joined to the historic main site, opened in 2013.

Pembroke’s debt to Sir Roger extends beyond the changes to the estate effected during his time with us as Master.  Links with our American students were strengthened by the relationships famously nurtured by Sir Roger and Lady Moyra Bannister.  The social side of College was further enhanced by the introduction of the College Garden Party, now firmly established as a favourite fixture in the College calendar.  During his time in College more than 100 Firsts were achieved by undergraduates and c80 sporting Blues were awarded (official records state that half blues were too numerous to count).  All of which is testament to his strong fostering of Pembroke as a challenging yet supportive environment for study.

After his retirement in 1993, Sir Roger continued a close relationship with Pembroke as an Honorary Fellow, and was a regular attendee at College events.  His name lives on in College: The Bannister Building in Rokos Quad is a permanent tribute to his Mastership.  Not only his portrait, but also many of Sir Roger’s sporting trophies and awards are on display in the College Hall.  The Sir Roger Bannister Scholarship is awarded annually to an undergraduate showing excellent performance in both academic and sporting activities, and the Bannister Medical Scholarship goes to the student giving the most distinguished performance in Final Honours School examinations. 

Sir Roger and his family lived in the Master’s Lodgings in College and took a deep interest in each student and their successes.  He sustained that interest right up until the end, and his legacy lives on in College, where it will continue to inspire new generations of students.

Sir Roger Bannister, portrait by John Stanton Ward