Infographic: How People Died In The 20th Century

A new visualization attempts to account for every death from 1900 to 2000, sorted by cause. It’s a big one.

Statistically speaking, you may be likely to die of a different ailment than your grandfather (or great-grandfather). Death evolves alongside life, as medicine improves and lifestyles shift. It’s rare to see this continuum laid out in a quantifiable form, which makes this infographic by British data journalist David McCandless (of Information is Beautiful) so fascinating.


Commissioned by the Wellcome Trust, a U.K. charity devoted to human health, Death in the 20th Century shows us the leading causes of mortality from 1900 to 2000, worldwide. It’s a huge and diverse amount of data to parse, factoring in the variables of time and geographic location. The big trend, of course, is cancer, which emerged in the 20th century as one of the top causes of death. Other trends are more insipid. “Humanity”–deaths by murder, accidents, drugs, and “ideology,” is the third-largest cause with 980 million. It’s difficult to believe that road traffic has killed more people than homicide, but then again, this was the century of the car. Less difficult to believe? The fact that the cigarettes (often distributed to soldiers over a century of conflict, ironically) have killed nearly as many people as the wars themselves.

Click to view full-size.

McCandless says the graphic was one of the most challenging the group has undertaken, not because of the subject matter, but because dependable data on international mortality rates is scarce–especially going back to the turn of the century. “In the end, we were forced to write our own regression algorithm,” he tells Co.Design. “It used math magic to roll modern mortality rates from the World Health Organisation back to the turn of the century,” by factoring for population size and historical shifts in fatal diseases (tuberculosis and smallpox versus diabetes and cancer).

In the end, it took the team of four three weeks to sort out all the data and get designing. “I felt like I was dying through some of it,” says McCandless. “Maybe that’s a cause we missed? Death by infographic.”

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.