Diane Leather, first woman to run mile under 5 minutes, dies at 85
NEW YORK — Diane Leather, who was the first woman recorded to have run a mile in under five minutes but whose feat — like women’s distance running in general at the time — was not recognized by the track-and-field establishment, died Sept. 6 in Truro, Cornwall, England. She was 85.
The cause was a stroke, her son Matthew Charles said.
Ms. Leather was working as a chemist at Birmingham University in 1952 when she saw a television broadcast of the women’s 100-meter and 200-meter track events at the Helsinki Olympics.
“I thought I’d love to do that,” she told The Great Barr Observer, a newspaper in Birmingham, England, in 2014.
She joined a local running group called the Birchfield Harriers, whose coach, admiring her speed, encouraged her to try longer distances. Soon, the goal of breaking five minutes became “something of a Holy Grail for her,” her husband, Peter Charles, said in a written account of her career.
Ms. Leather wasn’t the only one with that goal: The race for a woman to break the five-minute mile was fierce, despite the lack of official recognition.
In September 1953, Anne Oliver of Britain finished in 5:08.0, a record. Later that month, Ms. Leather beat that time with 5:02.6. Two months later it was Edith Treybal, from Romania, with 5:00.3. On May 26, 1954, Ms. Leather surpassed that mark by a hair, finishing at 5:00.2.
Three days later, on May 29, 1954, in a meet at Alexander Stadium in Birmingham, Ms. Leather was ready to make another attempt. With the starter’s gun echoing across the track, she jetted ahead of the pack.
“I was really on my own,” she recalled later. “There were no pacemakers or anything.”
With a final surge, she broke the tape at 4:59.6.
“Oh, good,” she said matter-of-factly when told what her time was. “At last.”
The New York Times hailed her achievement, describing her as a 5-foot-10 “good-looking laboratory analyst.”
“A five-minute mile in women’s track and field has been looked upon as the sport’s greatest goal,” the Times wrote.
She set her record 23 days after another Briton, Roger Bannister, broke the four-minute mile for men. But unlike Bannister, who died in March, Ms. Leather would not find a place in the world record books.
At the time, the sport’s governing body, the International Amateur Athletics Federation, did not keep track of women’s distances greater than 800 meters.
That policy originated with an incident at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928, when a women’s 800-meter event was included in the Games for the first time. Six women collapsed on crossing the finish line, setting off an outcry.
The distance, the Times said, was “too great a call on feminine strength.” The London Daily Mail quoted doctors as saying that such “feats of endurance” would cause women to “become old too soon.”
The women’s 800-meter Olympic event was discontinued and not reinstated until 1960, in Rome. Until then the longest race in which women could compete was 200 meters.
In 1955, Ms. Leather twice improved her own time, finishing in 4:50.8 in May and in 4:45.0 in September. She held the unofficial record for seven years.
She also broke world records for women in the 800-meters and 880-yard relay events. And she twice won silver medals in the 800-meter event at the European championships.
Diane Susan Leather was born on Jan. 7, 1933, in Streetly, Staffordshire, England, to James Bertrand Leather, a surgeon, and Mabel Winifred (Barringer) Leather. She had five brothers.
She married Charles in 1959. At the 1960 Rome Olympics, she ran in a preliminary heat in the 800 but did not advance. She retired from competitive running that year, at 27, and had her first child in 1961.
She later earned a college degree in social work and was employed for many years at Cruse Bereavement Care, a nonprofit agency in Cornwall.
Her husband died in 2017. In addition to her son Matthew, Ms. Leather leaves two other sons, Hamish and Rufus; a daughter, Lindsey; three brothers; and 13 grandchildren.
It wasn’t until 1967 that the IAAF recognized the women’s mile as a competitive event. The record went to Anne Rosemary Smith, who finished that June in 4:37.0. The women’s current mile record is 4:12.56, set by Svetlana Masterkova of Russia in 1996.
Ms. Leather was inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013. In 2014, a trophy presented to the female winner of the annual Westminster Mile race was named in her honor.
When asked if she had ever resented not being officially recognized as a world record-holder for the mile, she told The Birmingham Post and Mail in 2004, “There is no way.”
“It was something I accepted,” she said.