Hans Rosling’s mother, who suffered from tuberculosis, wanted her son to become a doctor. But he wanted to study the social sciences and economics.
“I think I ended up in public health as a compromise between those two strong wills,” he said.
Now a professor of international public health at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Rosling will join an elite group of public service leaders as this year’s recipient of the Harvard Foundation’s Rev. Peter J. Gomes Humanitarian Award. He will accept the award—which counts Desmond M. Tutu, Kofi Annan, and Thorbjørn Jagland among its past winners—on Oct. 24, The Harvard Foundation announced late last week.
“I feel as confused as a sportscaster would feel if he would win a gold medal at the Olympics just by talking about the performance of the athletes,” Rosling wrote in an email to The Crimson, because he could not be reached by phone. “The other award winners have done something for the world; I have just talked about it.”
In addition to teaching, Rosling co-founded Sweden’s Doctors Without Borders and Gapminder, an internet-based non-profit “fact tank” dedicated to promoting sustainable global development and the fulfillment of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals.
But he said that he found his years as a district medical officer working with female farmers in northern Mozambique to be the most challenging and fulfilling of his professional career.
“To listen to their life stories made me somewhat understand the depth and sufferings of extreme poverty,” he wrote. “It was the most meaningful intellectual experience of my academic life to realize that I would never have gained the same understanding without the face-to-face, human communication on the floor in their very humble homes.”
The Harvard Foundation, which aims to improve race relations and the overall quality of life at the University, will host a ceremony in honor of Rosling in Winthrop House. On Oct. 25, Rosling will give the Pickard Lecture for the Harvard Statistics Department, where he will discuss his work on global health disparities.
“Eliminating the health component and consequences of absolute poverty” remains the world’s largest challenge, Rosling said. “The world has become much better, but it is still far from good.”