A guru of data display, a physician committed to the most vulnerable, a rigorous researcher, innovative professor or simply, edutainer, as he defined himself (a blend of educator-teacher and entertainer-host). Any of these definitions suited Hans Rosling well. He died on February 7 in Uppsala, Sweden, in the place where he was born, 68 years ago.
The spotlight of fame shone on Dr. Rosling in 2006, when he presented his first, and legendary, TED Talk titled “The best stats you’ve ever seen,” where, through analytical data, he questions the myths around developing countries. But Rosling was already recognized in the scientific world much earlier for his studies of cassava toxicity and food security in Africa. This brought him to CIAT in the early 1990s.
His story resembles a movie script. Hans Rosling and his wife had traveled from their native Sweden to Mozambique. He had studied medicine and public health and was anxious to contribute with his practice to one of the poorest regions of Africa. In mid 1981, a strange disease appeared in the province of Nampula, north of Mozambique. Dozens of people suddenly became paralyzed, with blurred vision and difficulty speaking. It soon became an epidemic, with more than 1,000 cases reported. The condition was called Konzo, which, in the Yaka language (spoken in a village of southeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo) means “tied legs.”
When Rosling came to investigate the situation, he felt one of the greatest fears of his life, for he would soon realize that no one had ever seen anything like this before. A short time afterward, his inquiries led him to conclude that the disease was appearing among the rural populations most affected by hunger in Africa, whose diet is dominated by a variety of cassava with a high level of cyanide. The communities, in their zeal to feed themselves in times of drought, did not process the cassava well and this led, as a consequence, to the intoxication that affected the nervous system.
Rosling spent two decades studying outbreaks of Konzo in remote rural areas in Africa and supervised more than ten doctoral students in his endeavor to understand and completely eradicate the disease. By means of his research, he obtained his PhD from the University of Uppsala in 1986, and he converted his findings into a model that connected diverse perspectives in the study of cassava.
Because of this work, Dr. Ann Marie Thro and Dr. William Roca invited him to be part of the newly formed Cassava Biotechnology Network, a CIAT initiative that was founded in 1988 with the collaboration of IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture) and other agricultural research institutions, with the mission of “maximizing the contribution of modern biology to the agronomic improvement of cassava, a crop of central importance for food security in the tropics”.
The first meeting of this Network was in Cartagena de Indias from 25 to 28 August 1992. There were 86 scientists from different parts of the world in attendance (several of them CIAT staff members), including Dr. Hans Rosling who, at that time, was working in the University Hospital of Uppsala. “Rosling played a key role in the articulation of the themes of the Cassava Biotechnology Network, from the perspectives of health and nutrition. In the first meeting of this Network held in Cartagena in 1992 – where I saw him for the first time – he played an important role in the selection of strategic themes and planning,” remembers Joe Tohme, CIAT’s Agrobiodiversity research area director.
“Causal links between socioeconomic situation-cassava production and processing-dietary cyanide exposure-human diseases” was the title of Rosling’s special presentation at that meeting. Starting from there, a connection was established, as well as a permanent collaboration with the academic and scientific cassava community. “As the years went by, Rosling was an intellectual beacon with his knowledge about the integration of public health, agriculture, and research,” said Dr. Tohme.
Always open to opportunities to collaborate, Dr. Rosling attended the World Congress on Root and Tuber Crops held in China in January 2016, where he shared with Dr. Hernán Ceballos and Dr. Clair Hershey, CIAT scientists dedicated to research and cultivation of cassava. There he gave a lecture titled “Cassava in a global perspective.”
“I remember him as a passionate person, an incredible worker who never stopped. A very original person who made links between apparently separate themes, using his curiosity, his passion, and his intelligence,” recalled Guy Henry, coordinator of CIAT’s project on Sustainable Food Systems. But beyond his abilities as a scientist, researcher, professor, and data analyst, those who had the opportunity to spend time with Rosling remember his generosity and optimism, qualities that he used to spread the message that he left as his legacy: “The seemingly impossible is possible, we can have a better world.”
“For me, he is an admirable person,” said Joe Tohme. “He offered himself as a volunteer in Sierra Leone, when there was crisis of the Ebola virus, to help organize the health system. He knew the risk that he was running, but it didn’t matter to him. He managed to organize a large part of the epidemiological data and offer his knowledge, both of health and of statistics, to understand what was happening with this virus, how to manage the intervention, etc. Few people are willing to take the initiative and an altruistic position, knowing that their bodily integrity is in danger.”Joe Tohme
For this, and all the other reasons stated, and especially for his contributions to the Cassava Biotechnology Network, CIAT adds its voice to those who today mourn the loss of Dr. Hans Rosling and offers its deepest condolences to his family, friends, and to the entire universe of science that has lost an intellectual beacon that shone its light on the possibility of building a better world.