The IAAF is deeply saddened to hear that Diane Leather Charles, the first woman to run a mile within five minutes, died on 5 September at the age of 85.
Born in January 1933, Leather took up running at the relatively late age of 19 after being inspired by watching the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games. She joined Birchfield Harriers in the autumn of that year where she started training under the coaching eye of Dorette Nelson-Neal.
Less than a year later, Leather set her first of several world bests, clocking 5:02.6 for the mile in September 1953. Her time was bettered two months later by Romania’s Edith Treybal, who clocked 5:00.3. Naturally, the prospect of 1954 becoming a race to be the first woman to break five minutes for the mile perhaps became a focus.
At the Midland Championships on a rain-soaked cinder track at Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium on 29 May 1954 – just 23 days after Roger Bannister had broken the four-minute barrier for the mile – Leather won the mile in 4:59.6, becoming the first woman to cover the distance within five minutes. Her record-breaking run came just 45 minutes after she had won the 880 yards.
Three weeks later, on 19 June, she recorded her only individual world record, officially recognised by the IAAF, an 800m of 2:09.0. In fact she was being timed over 880 yards in this race and this time was accepted by the international governing body for the shorter metric distance, where no separate time-keepers had been provided.
Over a three-year period, from 1953 to 1955, Leather improved the women’s world best for the mile on an unprecedented five occasions and by a total of 23 seconds, taking it from 5:08.0 to 4:45.0, a mark that remained unbroken for seven years.
Her relatively brief career saw her also equal the world best for 440 yards and set two world best performances for 1500m. At that time, these performances were all classified as 'world best' performances, rather than world records, as the only women’s individual middle distances recognised by the IAAF were the 800m and 880 yards.
Leather also excelled at cross-country running and won the England National Cross Country Championships for four consecutive years from 1953 to 1956. She also claimed individual and team gold in the International Cross Country Championships – the forerunner to the World Cross Country Championships – in 1954, 1955 and 1957.
She finally gained her opportunity to run at the Olympic Games in Rome in 1960, as Diane Charles, but was eliminated in the first round of the 800m, finishing fifth in her heat in 2:14.24.
After retiring from competitive athletics at the age of 27, Leather went on to teach, perform social work and raise four children. She was inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013.
The IAAF wishes to pass on its sincerest condolences to Diane Leather Charles's family and friends.
Peter Thompson for the IAAF