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This database began in the year 2000 as a collaborative project involving research teams in the Department of Demography at the University of California, Berkeley (USA) and at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock (Germany). The French Institute for Demographic Studies (INED) has also supported the further development of the database in recent years. The HMD enjoys financial support from the National Institute on Aging (USA), and receives technical advice and assistance from a long list of international collaborators (see acknowledgements).

The database was launched in May 2002 after its first phase of development. The Human Mortality Database (HMD) is a direct outgrowth of an earlier project known as the Berkeley Mortality Database (BMD), which was founded in 1997 by John Wilmoth under a grant from the National Institute on Aging. The BMD provided detailed mortality data similar to those presented here, but it included only four countries (France, Japan, Sweden, and the United States). The BMD served as a prototype for the HMD, but with many improvements thanks to a growing collaboration between demographic researchers at UC-Berkeley, MPIDR, and elsewhere.

The HMD was also strongly influenced by the Kannisto-Thatcher Database on Old Age Mortality (KTD), which was founded in 1993 by Väinö Kannisto and Roger Thatcher with the support and collaboration of James Vaupel, Kirill Andreev, and many others. The KTD was first developed at Odense University Medical School in Denmark, but since 1996 it has been maintained and further developed at MPIDR.

The HMD combines the best of these earlier efforts into a single project. The BMD had the advantage of including data across the entire age range, and it offered methods of organization and presentation of data that facilitate further study by a broad audience of users. The KTD project restricted its attention to data above age 80 and pioneered methods of mortality estimation in this age range. Thanks to this more narrow focus, the KTD has been able to include data for more than 30 countries. The original goal of the HMD was to create a database with a format similar to the BMD, borrowing new methods at older ages from the KTD and growing to include data for around 30-40 countries or areas.