[4/100] The rapid decline of maternal mortality


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.

Data Sources:

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).

[3/100] Gains for all – Life Expectany by Age




What this chart shows:


Every time I talk about the increase of life expectancy there is at least one person who claims that this is not very meaningful as this statistic “is skewed” by the decrease in child mortality. Yes, child mortality matters a lot – but there is more to the increase in life expectancy than this. This chart shows it!

Before the onset of modernity – with the advancements in science and the increase of living standards – life was short. As we have seen in the1st chart in this series, in 1800 there was no country in the world where the life expectancy was higher than 40 years.

The gains in life expectancy since then were mostly due to changing mortality patterns at a young age: It was common that every 3rd or even 2nd child died, and it has dropped dramatically since then. See the data entry on child mortality on OurWorldInData.

But this chart here shows that the increase of life expectancy was by far not entirely due to the decrease in child mortality: Child mortality is defined as the number of children dying before their 5th birthday. To see how life expectancy has improved without taking child mortality into account we therefore have to look at the prospects of a child who just survived their 5th birthday: In 1845 a 5-year old had a expectancy to live 55 years. Today a 5-year old can expect to live 82 years. An increase of 27 years!

And also at higher ages mortality patterns have changed. A 50-year old could expect do live twenty more years. Today the life expectancy of a 50-year old is 83!

And another important change can be studied in this chart: Health inequality decreased hugely! Look by how much life expectancy differed by age in 1845 – from 40 years for newborns to 79 for 70-year olds. Today this span is much smaller – from 81 to 86. This is because the chance of dying at a younger age has been steadily decreasing, which means that the equality of life spans has increased.

Data Sources:

The data for life expectancy by age is taken from the Human Mortality Database. University of California, Berkeley (USA), and Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (Germany). Available at www.mortality.org (data downloaded on 11 February 2014 – being granted permission to use this data for the visualisation on 13 February 2014).

The data on life expectancy at birth before 1845 is taken the data from Kertzer and Laslett (eds) (1995) – Aging in the Past: Demography, Society, and Old Age. Berkeley: University of California Press. Online here. Their sources are the ‘British official statistics’ and Wrigley and Schofield [1981] 1989.

(The Human Mortality Database data refers to remaining life expectancy for people in a 5 year age bracket (10-14, 15-19, …). To calculate total life expectancy I have added the lower bound of each range to the remaining life expectancy for the given age group – the values here should therefore be understood as the lower bound for total life expectancy.)

Link to OurWorldInData.org

The interactive version of this chart – showing the life expectancy by 5-year interval up to the age of 110 – is available in the data entry on life expectancy.

[2/100] Economic World History in One Chart


What this chart shows:

This chart shows the distribution of the annual income between all world citizen. To make incomes comparable across countries and across time the annual incomes are measured in International Dollars – this is a currency that would would buy a comparable amount of goods and services a U.S. dollar would buy in the United States in 1990.

The distribution of incomes is shown at 3 points in time:

  • In 1820 only few countries achieved economic growth. The chart shows that the majority of the world lived in poverty with an income similar to the poorest countries in Africa today (around 500 International Dollars).
  • 150 years later in the year 1950 the world has changed – it became very unequal. The world income distribution has the shape of a camel. One hump at around 500 International Dollars and a second hump at around 5,000 International Dollars – the world was divided into a poor developing world and a 10-times richer developed world.
  • The world income distribution has changed dramatically over the following 3 decades! The poorer countries, especially in South-East Asia, have caught up. The two-humped camel shaped has changed into a one-humped dromedar shape – the world is not divided in two anymore. And not only is the world more equal again, the distribution has also shifted to the right – the world is much richer!

This is part of my 100 chart project.

Data Sources:

I have taken the data from van Zanden, J.L., et al. (eds.) (2014), How Was Life?: Global Well-being since 1820, OECD Publishing. Online here. The plotted data is interpolated using Cardinal spline.
The data used in this OECD publication is originally from the Clio-Infra data base and I have taken the data of average incomes (=GDP per capita) in 2000 (shown in green) from the same source.

Link to OurWorldInData.org

The interactive version of this chart – showing the World Income Distribution in 1800, 1929, 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980, and 2000 – is available in the data entry on inequality between world citizens.

[1/100] Everyone is better off – Life expectancy increased in all countries around the world


What this chart shows:

To start off my series of 100 charts that explain how living standards have improved over the long run I chose my data visualisation of the dramatic improvement of global health.

There is a lot of information in this unusual chart. On the x-axis you find the cumulative share of the world population. And all the countries of the world are ordered along the x-axis ascending by the life expectancy of the population. On the y-axis you see the life expectancy of each country.
For 1800 (red line) you see that the countries on the left – India and also South Korea – have a life expectancy around 25. On the very right you see that in 1800 no country had a life expectancy above 40 (Belgium had the highest life expectancy with just 40 years).
In 1950 the life expectancy of all countries was higher than in 1800 and the richer countries in Europe and North America had life expectancies over 60 years – over the course of modernisation and industrialisation the health of the population improved dramatically. But half of the world’s population – look at India and China – made only little progress. Therefore the world in 1950 was highly unequal in living standards – clearly devided between developed countries and developing countries.
This division is ending: Look at the change between 1950 and 2012! Now it is the former developing countries – the countries that were worst off in 1950 – that achieved the fastest progress. While some countries (mostly in Africa) are lacking behind. But many of the former developing countries have caught up and we achieved a dramatic reduction of global health inequality.
The world developed from equally poor health in 1800 to great inequality in 1950 and back to more equality today – but equality on a much higher level.

Data sources I used for this chart:

The data on life expectancy is taken from Version 7 of the data set published by Gapminder. The documentation is online here.

The data on the population of each country is taken from Gapminder. The data and the documentation can be found here.

The included world population in 1800 is 1,036 billion. In 1950 it is 2,72 billion. For 2012 it is the life expectancy of that year and the population measures refer to 2010 (7 billion people).

Link to OurWorldInData.org

This chart is also published on my project OurWorldInData.org in the data entry on life expectancy – where you find much more information on the how health is improving around the world.

It’s a cold, hard fact: our world is becoming a better place


Is it actually true that we are building a better world? Or are those who claim that things are always getting worse the ones in the right? Whether we’re discussing the way of the world over a pint in the pub or dissecting the issues at an academic conference, it’s a topic that lingers constantly: how is the world changing?

The evidence to answer these questions is out there, but it is often obscured by media headlines. So we created OurWorldInData.org to present long-term data on how our world is changing. Using empirical data, visualised in graphs, we tell the history of the world that we live in, looking at long-term economic, social and environmental trends. For each topic the quality of the data is discussed and comprehensive lists of the data sources are provided, giving a trustworthy and transparent starting point for researchers.

The answers to my initial questions are very clear. The evidence shows that we are becoming less violent and increasingly more tolerant, that we are leading healthier lives, are better fed, and that poverty around the world is declining rapidly. Taking these facts into account paints a very positive picture of how the world is changing.

Because our endeavours to build a better future are, inevitably, linked to our perception of the past, it is important to understand and communicate the way our world has changed. Studying our world in data and understanding how we overcame challenges that seemed insurmountable at the time should give us the confidence to tackle the problems we are currently facing. OurWorldInData.org both highlights the challenges that lie ahead and demonstrates that we are indeed making the world a better place.

The interactive graphic below shows the number of world citizens living under different political systems (the sources can be found in the democratisation entry on OurWorldInData). To show the percentage of people living under the different systems listed, click on ‘Expanded’.

It is easy to be cynical about the world and to maintain that nothing is ever getting better. But fortunately the empirical evidence contradicts this view. We believe it is partly due to a lack of relevant and understandable information that a negative view on how the world is changing is so very common. It is not possible to understand how the world is changing by following the daily news; disasters happen in an instant but progress is a slow process that does not make the headlines. We believe it is important to communicate to the largest audience possible that technical, academic, entrepreneurial, political, and social efforts are in fact having a very positive impact.

Our meta-database is freely available and my own data visualisations for this website are made available under a Creative Commons license. The website only launched this summer but because of the wide scope of topics and the accessibility, academics and journalists alike are already using it as a resource. Over the coming months we will expand OurWorldInData.org and to cover even more aspects of the world. To be kept up to date on our work, follow @MaxCRoser on Twitter.

  • Image above shows women preparing to vote in Iraqi elections (iStock via the original article at the Oxford Martin School)