UW News

October 10, 2019

Personal comments from Hans Rosling’s family about UW’s new Hans Rosling Center for Population Health

UW News

Hans Rosling with props

Hans Rosling with a few of the props he used to tell complex, data-driven stories about the real state of the world.Jörgen Hildebrandt/Gapminder

The new building on the University of Washington’s Seattle campus that will be home to some of the key departments at the center of the university’s Population Health Initiative was named in honor of Dr. Hans Rosling on Oct. 10, 2019, by the UW Board of Regents. The $230 million building under construction on the university’s Seattle campus is now the Hans Rosling Center for Population Health.

Rosling was a Swedish doctor, statistician, author and professor, whose work in popularizing positive global health data inspired millions of people, including Bill and Melinda Gates whose foundation contributed $210 million to the construction of the building. Rosling died from pancreatic cancer on Feb. 7, 2017.

Rosling family members said he would have been honored to have his name associated with the university’s building and its related effort to improve lives across the globe. Following are more comments and history about Hans’ life and passion for improving lives and our understanding of the world by his family: Agneta Rosling (wife), Anna Rosling Larsson (daughter), Magnus Rosling (son), Ola Rosling (son), Anna Rosling Rönnlund (daughter in law, married to Ola), Mats Rosling (Hans’ brother).

On behalf of the family, Ola Rosling (son) told this story:

Hans’ mother Britta was holding her mother’s hand firmly as she walked towards her first school day, at the age of 6. There were so many children in the slums of Uppsala, Sweden, where Britta lived and the municipality had decided to construct a new large public school. Britta belonged to the age group entering first grade the very day the new building was inaugurated. The new schoolhouse was beautifully painted in green and white and when it appeared in front of them, her mother grabbed her hand and lowered her head to whisper in her daughter’s ear: “The reason they have built this large beautiful house must be that they actually believe there’s something valuable in people like us too.”

Hans’ mother loved going to school, but beyond grade 6 there was a fee that her family couldn’t afford and she had to drop out to start working. Many years later she had Hans, and his first memories of his mother was when he and his father visited her at the hospital where she was isolated with tuberculosis. She survived TB, and Hans became the first in his family to go more than six years to school. He was always determined to use this privilege to work hard to make life better for the many still stuck in poverty, because even if many things have gotten better in the world, there are still lots of talented people with no chances to higher education. There are millions of mothers suffering from preventable diseases, like TB, where treatments have existed for many decades already.

Hans often said “the health innovations of the future, that will prevent most suffering, will not be medical innovations, they will be health-system innovations: New solutions to better monitor health outcomes and better provide existing health services to all people.”

Agneta Rosling, wife:

I am very happy (the UW is) naming the building after him with the very clear dedication of supporting the poorest part of the world’s population. That’s really a heartwarming thing to hear. We really love that part of it, as it is what he wanted and it is what I wanted.

(Hans and I) have really seen just how divided the world is. And the real poor part of the population, they are really not seen. They have no voice at all and to find means to focus on the poorest, on the most needy, it’s really a … oh, I can cry when I think about it.

Ola Rosling, son:

I would like to start with a little bit of history: We are living for the first time in human history when there is an abundance of data. And this is a unique opportunity to do things right. Previous generations did try to measure health outcomes. Hans used to tell me this anecdote: WHO (World Health Organization) when it started tried to measure health by the number of doctors per capita, the number of hospital beds, because it is something easy to count. So, then they matured into measuring deaths — how many die and then how many die from different diseases — to try to predict the mortality in the population to see if the health care actually had an effect.

What happened at WHO during the ’90s with the “Global Burden of Disease” publication (a systematic measure of the world’s health problems co-authored by Christopher Murray, director of the UW Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation), it completely changed all of that. Thanks to the abundance of data, they started understanding health in a new way.

You can better understand Hans in this context.

What’s being done at the University of Washington (at IHME in particular) is unique in human history. The first time anyone has parsed this much health outcome statistics at such granular level. That is something that Hans was extremely excited about. The parsing of this enormous amounts of data is a completely new academic exercise, which deserves the name population health because it gives a picture of who exactly is dying and suffering from which diseases.

So, this is a starting point for probably how health will be measured in the future. The way it was done historically was a disaster. They were measuring the wrong things all the time. Measuring death is not measuring health. It’s only measuring life or death, but measuring health and the suffering and disabilities while you are not yet dead is way more complex and requires enormous amounts of data.

So, the huge investment in this research and education building is definitely logical in a longer historical perspective. Humanity has now arrived at the point in time where there is so much data that someone has to set up a population health institute like what UW is doing.

That’s what Hans said. He was definitely super enthusiastic about the work done at IHME and the University of Washington.

Anna Rosling Larsson, daughter:

About having this building named in his honor: I think he would have liked it a lot. It’s very important to show the importance of these issues by forming a big center.

He was very committed. He really enjoyed his work and thought it was really important. That’s why so many say he was a very big inspiration for them, he was truly committed and enthusiastic about his work.

I think it’s really great that the (UW) is lifting this issue and continuing the work, because it is important to look at data and that we pay attention to who really needs the most help and where public health can make the biggest difference. … Looking at data and really taking notice, I think that’s what he would really want people to do.