Hans Rosling, visionary global health leader who used data to debunk pervasive development myths, has died

Hans Rosling at the Child Survival Call to Action event in Washington, D.C. in 2012. Photo by: USAID / CC BY-NC

Hans Rosling — the founder of Gapminder and the visionary Swedish professor of global health, who used data to debunk pervasive development myths — has died at age 68.

Rosling, a physician and epidemiologist, is renowned for advocating for more accurate data about development and employing creative visual aids — from building blocks to graphics — to make that data more compelling. He was a professor of global health at Sweden's Karolinska Institutet, before leaving to work full time on Gapminder, the development statistics and education foundation that he ran with his son and daughter-in-law.

Millions watched his online talks and presentations, which brought his ideas to a worldwide audience. Working as an advisor to development leaders, technology companies and politicians including Al Gore, he was recognized as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People globally in 2012.

Rosling died in Sweden on Tuesday, surrounded by his family after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer.

In a statement on the Gapminder website, Rosling’s family said: “Hans is no longer alive, but he will always be with us, and his dream of a fact-based worldview, we will never let die!” Memorial plans will be announced at a later date.

Development leaders took to social media to express their sadness at Rosling’s death and reflect on his work for the sector. World Bank President Jim Kim tweeted that Rosling was a “great champion” of open data and global development.

Bill and Melinda Gates also paid tribute to Rosling. Melinda described him as a “personal hero” and “gifted teacher,” while her husband called him a “great friend, educator and true inspiration for our work.”

David Nabarro, former U.N. special envoy for Ebola and a top pick to be the next World Health Organization leader, said Rosling “changed the way we all conceive of people’s health” by making numbers “come to life for millions.”

Rosling is best known for his compelling and challenging talks and presentations that debunked pervasive myths about global development. His lively TED talks attracted huge audiences, including the 2006 presentation “The Best Stats You've Ever Seen,” which has been watched more than 11 million times.

In it, Rosling used animated charts to challenge traditional perceptions about the divide between developed and developing countries — labels that lump diverse nations under a single banner and assume that entire populations in the developing world are defined by large family sizes and low life expectancies. Through his signature moving bubble chart, Rosling visually demonstrated that the gap between countries is shrinking in terms of development indicators, such as life expectancy, GDP and family size.

He is also known as the co-founder of the nonprofit Gapminder. Established in 2005, the self-styled “fact tank” produces software that enables users to create animated, searchable and compelling ways of looking at development data and statistics, aiming to give users “a fact-based worldview everyone can understand,” according to the organization’s website.

His family said that Rosling’s work through Gapminder "made him a world-famous public educator, or ‘edutainer’ as he liked to call it."

In 2013, Rosling famously debunked the myth about overpopulation when he presented “Don't Panic: The Truth About Population” on U.K. television, showing that population growth is slowing and that improvements in health care that reduce child mortality rates actually lead to smaller family sizes.

More recently, in 2016, Rosling took on the U.N’s claim that 60 percent of maternal deaths occur in settings of conflict, displacement and natural disaster. The professor calculated the number at 17 percent and published his findings in The Lancet.

“Global health seems to have entered into a post-fact era, where the labelling of numerators is incorrectly tweaked for advocacy purposes,” he wrote in the article.

Rosling’s challenge of traditional notions about developed and developing countries can be credited with influencing the decision to include all countries in the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, according to Michael Anderson, visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development and a board member for the Global Innovation Fund and GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance.  

Speaking at an event in London earlier this month, Anderson recalled how Rosling spoke to the high-level panel on the future of the Sustainable Development Goals. “He [Rosling] made the case that there is no difference between developed and developing [countries], and that conversation led to the proposition of let’s have universal goals instead,” he said.

But Rosling did not confine his efforts to the classroom or stage. When the Ebola outbreak reached emergency levels in Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014, the Swede traveled to Monrovia to help the government with its emergency response effort, tracking cases and identifying missing data about Ebola patients, which was crucial to halting the spread of the disease.

Reacting to news of his death, Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Löfven wrote that “Hans Rosling was ignorance's worst enemy, and the biggest proponent of hope." Former Prime Minister Carl Bildt agreed, adding: “In a time of doubt and pessimism … Hans Rosling made human progress across our world come alive for millions.”

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About the author

  • Edwards sopie

    Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.