Published: 09-02-2017 11:39 | Updated: 20-02-2017 12:43

Memories of Hans Rosling

Colleagues, friends and ministers today write their own tributes to Hans Rosling. Staffan Bergström, Professor Emeritus of International Health, remembers a fellow commuter from Uppsala, and Foreign Minister Margot Wallström a clear, pedagogical and vital voice. The world has improved in so many ways; but today, just today, it feels a little bereft, writes former doctoral student Christian Unge.

”A great friend, educator and true inspiration for our work. Melinda and I are saddened by the loss of Hans Rosling.”
Bill Gates on Twitter.

”Hans Rosling was a personal hero, a gifted teacher, and a big-hearted, evidence-based optimist.”
Melinda Gates on Twitter.

”A clear, instructive and important voice that helped us to better understand our world has passed away. Hans Rosling will be missed."
Margot Wallström on Twitter (translated into English).

”So sad. Hans Rosling has passed away. With facts and passion he showed us there is great progress in the world.”
Isabella Lövin on Twitter.

Helena Nordenstedt, Assistant professor and lecturer on global health at the Department of public health sciences, on Facebook:

"We are many who feel this loss today"

Helena Nordenstedt_KI”This is truly a sad day. Hans, who has been a friend, an advisor, a mentor to not only me, but to so many people around the world. Who could find the right words about just about anything, whether lecturing world leaders at the World Economic Forum or consoling someone heartbroken after a break-up (it’s true!). Brilliant, passionate, critical, challenging, warm, loyal, always true to his cause, always with a clear compass of right or wrong, no matter what other people would say. Who always had the time to teach, students, politicians, business leaders, journalists alike. And he would always try to find a way to come lecture for our Global Health students at KI, even if it was on Skype from Liberia.

So you think you as a medical student can make a difference?

I first met Hans Rosling in 2002, when as a young medical student I got to join my friend Katarina on a degree project in Tanzania. Before leaving we needed a document from KI stating our business, which Hans was to give me. I was a bit nervous when I stepped into his room and he immediately asked:

– So you think you as a medical student can make a difference? Do you know what the people you will meet in southern Tanzania need most??

I think I replied (at least I figured it was not medical students and maybe not even medical doctors):

– Economists...?

– They need ’Försäkringskassor’ (social insurance agencies) and infrastructure!! Remember that!

I did remember that, and the work in Tanzania was so revolving that I couldn’t let go of the idea of working within Global health. And 10 years later, that is in the past 4 years, I have the opportunity to do exactly that at KI, teaching Global health in Hans former research group.

Many more can tell you stories about how Hans has influenced them in one way or another. How he found the time for everything he did I don’t know. But when suggested that he should rest, he would always say ”rest I can do when I die”. However, I find it unlikely that he is about to rest now, it is just contradictory to his person. We are many who feel this loss today, but also many who can carry on Hans Rosling’s and Gapminder’s work.

For a world based on factfulness, and for a world where extreme poverty (the last 10 per cent of the world population that remains there) is finally eradicated. Please join in this mission, which might be more important today than ever before. And you can start by watching this TedTalk, by Hans and Ola Rosling.”

Helena Nordenstedt

Johan von Schreeb, Senior Lecturer at the Department of public health sciences, medical doctor and specialist in general surgery and disaster medicine:

“Learn from Hans. Be contemporary, humorous, factual and self-ironic"

Johan von Schreeb“Hans Rosling was a genius. He had a true talent for packaging fact-based knowledge in a way that held his audiences spellbound, be they professors or first-year medical students. It takes inspired pedagogical skills to summarise global population growth and its spread along axes of geography and age in a few minutes using ten toilet paper rolls. See for yourself!

Hans was an inveterate optimist who was driven by a thirst for facts to explain difficult problems in the world. He was passionate about his mission of eradicating extreme poverty. And he knew what he was talking about. His father was a coffee bean roaster and his mother had had tuberculosis. He’d experienced the Swedish folkhemmets rise from the ashes of poverty.

He put on airs and remained a professor at KI with his belt tightened above his navel.

He found it hard to listen at times, but when he squatted down in front of the toothless old woman by her open fire out in rural Africa, he drank in her experiences, her woes and her wishes.

I was Hans’s last doctoral student before he went on to devote himself fully to the Gapminder Foundation, where he and his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna created new educational tools to illustrate how the world was changing. He put on airs and remained a professor at KI with his belt tightened above his navel. At the same time, he was happy not to have to wear stuffy academic robes.

It’s a delicate task for us at KI to preserve and grow Hans’s legacy. We must tear down the walls around KI, not build new ones. Teaching and education must be more highly valued. Much more. Learn from Hans. Be contemporary, humorous, factual and self-ironic and make sure to devote yourself to important issues. Do that and you can be a great global educationalist!

Hans's legacy will be managed by many and his disciples are dispersed across the planet. His optimism planted seeds in us for of a new and better world. Let us make sure the seeds grow to become flowers that cast shade upon the weeds of ignorance. We owe it to Hans.”

Johan von Schreeb

Anna Mia Ekström, Professor of global infection epidemiology at the Department of public health sciences and consultant

"You never got the answer you were expecting"

"Hans Rosling was a fantastic person and I feel very privileged to have worked with him. After meeting Hans 16 years ago, I changed my area of research. I had done my doctorate in medical epidemiology but had a strong interest in global issues. Hans taught a course in International Health and inspired me a lot so I went to see him at KI.

The first time we met, he asked, "Are you religious or a communist? No other medical doctor wants to work with the poor for a low salary”. “If I must choose, I'm probably leaning more towards the left in that case”, I said. He began to interrogate me on global health using his famous chimpanzee test (5 questions on child mortality etc in different countries). Then he gave me the World Bank "World Development Report" to read. I read it quickly but carefully and loved it! He apparently liked that and kept asking me questions about what I thought of the measurements used to estimate the burden of disease and national health expenditures. He wanted me to start working immediately. First he sent me for a trip to India as a teacher for Global Health course. Next he sent me to Geneva to collect datasets for the World Health Chart and pilot test this which later was developed into the Gapminder chart. Hans encouraged us to be on our toes and questioned everything we said, all the time. He used to turn everything upside down and would not accept empty words or stupidity. He often told me, "You're wrong! Completely wrong! Think again!"

Very few work as hard as Hans did

Hans was interested in everything that happened in the world, including politics, and could always relate it to global health trends. He was a master at simplifying the complicated and often divided things into right or wrong. On the other hand he was also always open to change his mind if proven wrong. He was young at heart, curious and flexible. For example, he initially did not believe that large-scale HIV treatment in Africa would work, but when he saw that it did, he changed his mind. There was nothing arrogant or prestigious about him.

His greatness was that he was so intelligent and able to think broadly and "out of the box" using unexpected comparisons that made you see things clearer. You never got the answer you expected. He refused to be politically correct. His motto was that if you can just support your ideas with good statistics, you both can, and should, say what you think in order to enable evidence-informed decisions. It is not only our duty but also the wonderful freedom of speech we have, as researchers and academics at the university.

Very few work as hard as Hans did. Sometimes he nibbled sugar cubes to cope when working late in the evenings to prepare his lectures.
He often asked us who were his closest colleagues at KI to give lectures he did not have time to do, but he also encouraged us to take our own initiatives. He loved the role as entertainer and took pride in his broad network of influential people. Hans could talk to everyone just because he respected all kinds of people regardless of their background. He gave everyone a chance and valued people for what they stood for regardless of status or position and never flattered anyone who did not deserve it.

I will miss him so much! He was such a huge source of inspiration to me, due to his unique macro-perspective, his youthfulness and because he was such a warm person. The world will be very empty without him.

Anna Mia Ekström

Christian Unge, Consultant, graduated in 2010 with a PhD in global health when Hans Rosling was head of the Unit of global health (ICHAR):

“Many are we who have been inspired and affected by you.”

”Hans! It was with immense sorrow that I heard that you had passed away. Meeting you as a medical student was an eye-opener for me, and I knew immediately what I wanted to do: follow your lead. Many are we who have been inspired and affected by you, as a researcher and as an educator, both for the layperson and the student. But most of all you’ve helped the people around you grow. Not only have you inundated us with statistics and facts, but you have also shown us that the world has improved in so many ways. But today, just today, it seems a little bereft. We will all miss your piles of oranges, your PowerPoint balls, your pointers and your acute, piercing gaze.”

Christian Unge

Staffan Bergström, Professor Emeritus of International health at the Department of women's and children's health

"Hans Rosling – my co-commuter, the zealous didactician"

“My very first memory of Hans is from the early 1970s in Uppsala: a head of tousled hair in the ‘Ackis’ refectory and an energetic voice announcing his intention to become a ‘professor of medical geography’. A somewhat odd celebrity, that Hans Rosling, who turned up in my life with increasing frequency: from Sandö School’s aid and development programme to the Africa Groups’ weekend seminars, and then as my student on the 10-week course at Professor Yngve Hofvander’s ICH, where we would later become fellow lecturers.

With his beloved Agneta, Hans prepared their work in Mozambique that was on the point of foundering due to his first cancer, but which he defeated and was able to speak openly about to the press. Undaunted by his struggle, the family travelled to Mozambique, where they were given a placement in Nacala. Many photos of Hans during their years there depict a tall, skinny man, his permanently ruffled hair probably having never been introduced to a comb. That was him all over: he had to be reminded to eat, and his work took all his energy. We arrived in Mozambique a couple of years later and during our five years there experienced the unimaginable mass poverty in the war-torn country through the same eyes as Agneta and Hans.

Hans recounted to me on the phone just a few days before his death how the brutality of the most abject poverty only truly struck him in Nacala: that experience you can only get from the direct sensory perception of the inconceivable. There, in the midst of ‘the pathology of poverty’, Hans was marked for life and became the zealous didactician who wanted only to convey this pathology to everyone in unforgettable lectures and subsequently his Gapminder World Health Chart and Ted Talks.

Hey Staffan! Is it spelt ‘proffesor’ or ‘professor’?

On our route to KI I was one step ahead of Hans and was made professor of international health in 1996, but Erling Norrby soon sought my opinion on whether KI ought to recruit ‘that Hans Rosling’. ‘Sure,’ I thought, and then sat with Hans in our kitchen in Uppsala and received his consent. After that, we drove together daily back and forth between Uppsala and KI, where we would arrive at the crack of dawn. Without fail. And there was never a problem finding a parking space. Once at around midnight, when we were standing copying out factsheets for forthcoming lectures, I remember that a doctoral student who’d been gaping at us suddenly burst out – before we headed off for the midnight drive back to Uppsala: ‘You two are terrible role models for us junior researchers! You can’t live like this!’

So true. We were at a loss for words.

I had the privilege to be Hans’s fellow traveller during the latter part of his life – and not just in the car. When we were late out of KI and I was due to collect my wife Birgitta from the surgery at Astrid Lindgren’s Children’s Hospital, I had to send in Hans to take the brunt of the blame – which he did superbly! He was self-ironic and honest about his problems, including his constant struggle with dyslexia. Once when we went together to get our new ID cards we had to write down our personal data on a form. We were each sitting in a room surrounded by auxiliary nurses and clinical support workers when Hans’s voice suddenly rang out asking for help with his spelling: ‘Hey, Staffan! Is it spelt ‘proffesor’ or ‘professor’?’

There were many indulgent smiles that day amongst those in the waiting room.”

Staffan Bergström

Honour Hans Rosling with a donation to UNICEF
”Hans believed it was always important to remember the most vulnerable. Therefore, it was his wish that any donations made in conjunction with his passing be directed to UNICEF”, writes Hans Rosling’s wife Agneta Rosling regarding the family’s memorial collection.
To the memorial collection