Countries in northern Europe saw the biggest growth in height between the two world wars.
But those in southern Europe, a definition that includes France, had their big increase after World War II.
Timothy Hatton, an economist at the University of Essex, England, and the Australian National University in Canberra, describes the change as "explosive."
"The evidence suggests that the most important...source of increasing height was the improving disease environment," he writes.
"Rising income and education and falling family size had more modest effects."
The paper appears in Oxford Economic Papers, published by Oxford University Press.
In 1980, Dutch men were the tallest of the 15 countries studied, reaching around 1m83 (six feet), while the shortest were Portuguese, at around 1m73 (five feet, eight inches).
The study only looked at men, as there is little accurate data for the height of women for this period.
Other research into height gains has found that Europe far outpaced Africa, Latin America and South Asia during this time, an era characterised by industrialisation, urbanisation, the advent of antibiotics and expanded health systems.