What this chart shows:
I cannot imagine not imagine a more tragic time to lose your life than in the very moment you are giving life to your child.
The chart shows how much rarer maternal mortality has become. Let’s look back a hundred years: Out of 100,000 child births about 500 to 1,000 ended with the death of the mother. This means every 100th to 200th birth lead to the mother’s death. Since women gave birth much more often than today the death of the mother was a common tragedy.
The decline of maternal mortality to around 10 per 100,000 is due to the modern scientific understanding of the cause of maternal mortality and the adoption of very simple practices. The common reason for the mother to die was puerperal fever (or childbed fever) which was caused by unhygienic medical staff and medical equipment by which the mother’s genital tract is infected during childbirth. It was the physician Ignaz Semmelweis who first noticed the link between hygiene and the survival of mothers in the middle of the 19th century. He urged his colleagues to wash their hands with chlorinated lime solutions but was ignored. The germ theory of disease was not yet known and therefore he could not explain why there should be a link between hygiene and the survival of women during childbirth. The rejection by the medical community of the time turned Semmelweis bitter and every conversation he had revolved around childbed fever. He was eventually committed to an mental asylum where he died a miserable death. He was never to see how right he was and never knew how many mother’s lives he saved!
After Semmelweis’ death, when Louis Pasteur developed the germ theory of diseases, the recommendations of Semmelweis were finally adopted and maternal mortality started to decrease. A procedure as simple as the doctor washing his hands meant that puerperal fever – a killer of thousands of mothers – declined sharply. We see the decline in Finland over the course of the 2nd half of the 19th century. In the 20th century the availability of antibiotics made it possible to treat cases of puerperal fever and the death of a mother is today fortunately very rare.
As it is often the case we see that it is much harder for a pioneer to make advancements than for a country that catches up later. The decline of maternal mortality in Finland began in the middle of the 19th century and didn’t reach today’s low level more than a century later. Malaysia in contrast achieved this progress in only a few decades.
The visualized data is taken from Claudia Hanson (2010) – Gapminder Documentation 010 – Documentation for Data on Maternal Mortality Historical information compiled for 14 countries (up to 200 years). The accompanying document and the data set from which I have taken this data is online here. It shows the maternal mortality ratio (per 100,000 live births). The indicator is defined as follows by the source: ‘The number of maternal deaths divided by the number of live births in a given year, multiplied by 100,000. Maternal death is defined as the death of a women while pregnant or within the 42 days after termination of that pregnancy, regardless of the length and site of the pregnancy, from a cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy.’ If data is given for time brackets of more than a year then I have plotted the observation at the midpoint of the bracket.
Link to OurWorldInData.org
The interactive version of this chart – showing maternal mortality also for other countries – is available in the data entry on maternal mortality.
Much more common was the death of the child – every 3rd child died before the 5th birthday (see the data entry on child mortality).