Diane Leather, 1933–2018
The British runner who set a milestone for women
When Diane Leather became the first woman to run a mile in under 5 minutes, her feat was ignored by track and field authorities. The International Amateur Athletics Federation had stopped tracking women’s distances greater than 800 meters following the 1928 Olympics, when six women had collapsed at the finish line. Anything above 200 meters, experts declared, was simply too strenuous for the female body. But female athletes continued to compete in longer distances, and at a 1954 meet in the English city of Birmingham, the 21-year-old Leather finished a mile in a record-breaking 4:59.6. “Oh good,” she said upon hearing her time. “At last.”
Born in a Birmingham suburb to an orthopedic surgeon father, Leather took up running after watching a TV broadcast of the women’s 100-meter and 200-meter track events at the 1952 Olympics, said The New York Times. “I thought I’d love to do that,” she later recalled. While working as a chemist at a Birmingham university, she joined a running group, whose coach encouraged the 5-foot-10 athlete to try longer distances. Running a 5-minute mile became “something of a holy grail for her,” her husband, Peter Charles, later wrote.
“Leather’s achievement came just three weeks after that of another Briton, Roger Bannister, who broke the 4-minute-mile barrier,” said The Washington Post. But while Bannister earned worldwide renown, Leather’s feat drew little attention, and was not even considered an official “world record.” She retired from running at age 27, her achievement forgotten by many—but not all. “Occasionally,” she said in 2014, “people will say, ‘I heard your name on the radio quiz the other day.’”