“I feel fine,” she told reporters. “I’m going to have a go at the mile for a double.”
One hour later, the 21-year-old Ms. Leather became the first woman to run a mile in under five minutes, propelling herself forward in one last surge of strength to finish in 4 minutes and 59.6 seconds. It was an achievement, the Associated Press reported, that was “not long ago considered virtually unattainable by women.”
And because of concerns over women’s frailty, it was not officially a “world record.” Though clocked by official timekeepers and long recognized as valid, Ms. Leather’s barrier-breaking runs were merely considered “world bests.” The IAAF did not recognize women’s mile and 1,500-meter records until 1967.
Ms. Leather, who soon retired from running and worked for more than four decades as a social worker in England, helping bereaved families and foster children who rarely knew of her exploits on the track, died Sept. 5 at a hospital in Truro, in the English county of Cornwall. She was 85 and had recently suffered a stroke, said her son Matthew Charles.
A onetime lacrosse and field hockey player, Ms. Leather had taken up running only after watching television broadcasts of the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, where women competed in sprints and jumps but were barred from middle- or long-distance events. At longer distances, observers said, their bodies might simply break down: The last time women had competed in the 800 meters at the Olympics, in 1928, six runners had “collapsed” at the finish line. “Even this distance makes too great a call on feminine strength,” the New York Times reported.
But it was at those longer events that Ms. Leather most excelled. While studying chemistry at what is now Aston University in Birmingham, she joined the Birchfield Harriers athletic club and came under the tutelage of coach Dorette Nelson Neal. Training five days a week, fueled by a lunchtime diet of kippers, the 5-foot-10 runner set a women’s mile mark within a year with a time of 5 minutes 2.6 seconds.
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With that, the 5-minute barrier seemed on the verge of collapse. Romanian runner Edith Treybal ran a 5:00.3 in late 1953. Then, on May 26, 1954, Ms. Leather came within a stride of her goal, notching a time of 5:00.2.
Her moment of glory came three days later.
“I think I did wake up nervous that day,” she told Britain’s Independent newspaper in 2004. “You always did. The mile was important to me because it had gone down, year after year, to five minutes. Then everyone was saying that someone was going to break it, and it happened to be me.”
Ms. Leather’s achievement came just three weeks after that of another Englishman, Roger Bannister, who broke the four-minute-mile barrier — long considered a human impossibility — on an Oxford track about 70 miles away. Bannister, who died in March at 88, was greeted with international acclaim. Ms. Leather, described in an AP story on her record-setting run as “a good-looking laboratory analyst,” drew short notices and scant attention.
But fame, she said, was never something she sought. When she learned she had broken the five-minute mark, she declared, “Oh good, at last,” and went to have a drink with her coach and club secretary. In due course, she recalled, she received an invitation to tea with the lord mayor of Birmingham.
Diane Susan Leather was born in Streetly, a suburb of Birmingham, on Jan. 7, 1933. Her father was an orthopedic surgeon.
Ms. Leather broke her own mile record twice after bringing it under five minutes, culminating in a 1955 race in 4:45. That time stood for seven years, and the women’s mile record of 4:12.56 has been held by Russian runner Svetlana Masterkova since 1996. A sub-four-minute mile, Ms. Leather told the magazine Athletics Weekly in 2014, was probably “a long way off.”
In addition to her mile marks, Ms. Leather set a world record in the 880 yards and two world records in the 3 x 880-yard relay; equaled the world record for 440 yards; and twice set a new bar for 1500 meters, according to the sports governing body U.K. Athletics, which inducted Ms. Leather into its hall of fame.
Running in the 800 meter, then the longest event for women, she also won the silver medal at the European track championships twice, at Bern, Switzerland, in 1954 and at Stockholm in 1958. She was a three-time titleholder at the International Cross Country Championships, in 1954, 1955 and 1957, and won many of the top distance events for women in Britain, including four national cross-country championships.
In 1959 she married Peter Charles, an industrial engineer turned financial consultant. She ran under the name Diane Charles for her last competition, the 1960 Summer Games in Rome, where she was vice-captain of the British team but failed to make it out of the first-round heats for the 800 meter.
It was the first time since the 1928 Games that women were allowed to race in distances longer than 200 meters, but it would take until 1972 for the Olympics to add the women’s 1,500 meter and until 1984 to add the marathon — an event, Ms. Leather’s son said, that she would have loved to run had she had the opportunity.
Instead she focused on her work, settling in a farmhouse near Truro and rising to oversee child services in Cornwall before retiring in 2003. She was also a longtime volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care and the Samaritans.
Her husband died in 2017. Survivors include four children, Matthew Charles of London, Hamish Charles of Abbots Langley, Lindsey Armstrong of Evesham and Rufus Charles, who lives near Truro; three brothers; and 13 grandchildren.
In 2014, she and Bannister were on hand to present the inaugural Diane Leather and Roger Bannister trophies at the Bupa Westminster Mile in London. It was a rare reminder of her mile-run achievement, which her husband had memorialized by plating her shoes from that day in silver but which Ms. Leather, her son said, had long since tried to put behind her.
“People of an age would remember it,” she told the Independent. “The younger people don’t even know about it. That’s life, isn’t it? Occasionally, people will say, ‘I heard your name on the radio quiz the other day.’ ”