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Hans Rosling: ‘A kind and constantly curious genius’

Hans Rosling, who died this week aged 68 a year after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, had a virtuosity and flair that brought statistics to life

Hans Rosling was a kind and constantly curious genius. He was truly committed to the poorest people in this world, passionate about statistics and dedicated to communicating a fact-based worldview. His knowledge, virtuosity and humour infused his unique data visualisations with a life of their own, encouraging people around the world to engage with facts about population, global health and inequality that might otherwise have passed them by.

I first met him in his messy, overloaded office at Uppsala University in Sweden, where he was associate professor of internal medicine, in 1992. He showed me his now famous bubble graph on world statistics on handwritten overheads, and from that moment on he constantly provoked me to think and to become better.

Hans was born in Uppsala on 27 July 1948, and the city – about 43 miles north of Stockholm – loomed large in his life. He attended medical school at Uppsala University, graduating in 1974, and lectured there on international health from 1983 to 1996.

Along the way, he touched countless young lives. Fashion, food or sleep, he couldn’t care less about. The man who became famous as an “edutainer” on stage was just as mind-blowing, intense and inspiring in private discussions or in the classroom. He never accepted dogma, and had a boundless capacity to come up with new ideas.

Hans was my mentor in public health, in research and in life. He believed in people and gave me the confidence to do what I thought impossible. He was a professor who understood how to make others grow, and he sparked energy and a willingness to effect change in numerous young people in so many places around the world. Once you became his friend, he was always there for you.

We worked together for many years, organising courses in public health in India, Tanzania and Vietnam and collaborating on a textbook on global health. One paragraph in the book took weeks of conversations to agree upon, and it sometimes drove me crazy. But during our travels he never stopped educating me or anyone else who was interested, regardless of that person’s status or background.

To Hans, it didn’t matter if you were Bill Gates, a first-year medical student or a traditional birth attendant in a village in Tanzania – as long as you really listened and tried to understand. By the same token, he listened to others and liked to be challenged himself.

That appetite for challenge took Hans around the world. After graduating from Uppsala University in statistics and medicine in 1974 – by which time had already spent a year studying public health at St John’s Medical College in Bangalore, India – he worked as a doctor in northern Mozambique from 1979 to 1981.

He subsequently began investigating the cause of a rare paralytic disease affecting people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His research on the subject, which continued across Africa and led to the disease being named “konzo” – or “tired legs” in the Bantu language Yaka – earned him a PhD from Uppsala University in 1986.

Honesty came naturally to Hans. He once said to me: “To succeed, remember to always pay taxes and make no tricks with money.” No one worked for free around Hans, because he made sure everyone had a salary. His loyalty to his friends and family was strong. Agneta, his wife, who travelled to Mozambique with him when they were a young and idealistic couple, started as a midwife, became a psychiatrist, did her PhD and became head of clinic, encouraged by Hans. They married in 1972, when he was 24; he would later find statistical mileage even in those bare details.

Ola, Anna and Magnus, his three children, were very close to him, but sometimes I wondered how his family could stand all his travels and his impossible work pace. Hans always worked. I think it was compensated by his absolute attention when he was present in front of you, full of warmth and with a great sense of humour.

Hans Rosling
Pinterest
Hans Rosling delivers a talk on global population growth in Oxford in July 2012. Photograph: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images

In 1997, he became professor of global health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute; in 2005, still pursuing his dream of a fact-based global outlook, and determined to fight devastating misconceptions about global development”, he co-founded the Gapminder Foundation together with his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund.

Within two years, Google paid an undisclosed amount for the Trendalyzer software behind the bouncing bubbles and animated statistics that, through his Ted talks and TV documentaries such as The Joy of Stats and Don’t Panic – the Truth about Population, propelled him into the global spotlight.

When Hans became famous, he would sometimes laugh about it like an excited boy. Yet fame never changed his way of being. He just truly loved being on stage. I think what he enjoyed most about the elevation of his status was the access it gave him to influential people. That meant he could make things happen.

One example of this occurred during the Ebola epidemic, when he mobilised funds and established an Ebola course for international aid workers. He gave an epic speech at the Medical Association on the importance of acting quickly against Ebola that left all 400 people present ready to leave the next day to help.

One of his last missions involved assisting the ministry of health in Liberia during the Ebola epidemic. He really enjoyed working cheek by jowl in a small office with his Liberian colleagues, passionately charting, analysing and acting to stop the epidemic.

Hans was discouraged sometimes. “I teach the same thing over decades and ignorance is still there,” he would occasionally lament.

But Hans, you moved so many of us. No one can take your place, but we can all play our part in creating a fact-based understanding of the world that will help us make the right decisions for our future.


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

May 2017
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