Visualizing Major Causes of Death in the 20th Century

Wellcome Collection 20th Century Death Visualized header

I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk by the provocative philosopher John Gray as he discussed his new book – The Silence of Animals: On Progress and other Myths. During the engaging talk (which you can listen to here) he made a strong case for the idea that, while technology has progressed substantially over the last centuries, society and human behavior has not. Are we all just animals with mobile phones and machine guns? As we’ll see from this excellent graphic detailing the major causes of death in the 20th century, John Gray may be on to something.


I recently saw the jaw dropping graphic featured at the Wellcome Collection in London. Part of their well received exhibition Death: A self-portrait, it was easily the most observed piece of the show… people literally stood, mouths open, taking in the figures presented on an entire wall before them. The piece, produced by Information is Beautiful, stretched a large 6 by 2 meters – a fitting size for the magnitude of the numbers we were observing.

The bubble chart covers the main causes of death from the 20th century, a time of incredible growth in both world population and the technology that we can harness. It was the century of both the atom bomb and the rise of antibiotics. It was a century of mass communication and mass killing. Here, those figures are presented with major causes like ‘Infectious Diseases’ and ‘Humanity’ forming large brown bubbles. Smaller bubbles in varying shades of orange and yellow branch out from there, showing further refined causes of death.

Some things stood out strikingly once visualized, and were hot topics of conversation as people observed the graphic. How come we’re so afraid of spiders if elephants have featured in around 50,000 deaths? Why don’t we in the western world know that diarrhea is such a killer? And tough questions like – how have conflicts waged by the U.S. in the name of democracy resulted in approximately 14 million deaths (not even including anything past 1999)? The graphic is both a wake up call to major health problems – and a sobering look at human nature in the modern world.

Click here or the image below for a full-sized view:

Wellcome Collection 20th Century Death Visualized 1

Via informationisbeautiful

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