Celebrating the Life of Jim Fries and His Commitment to Improving Health

Finding your passion is critical to having impact in the short time each of us is given here on earth. Jim Fries, MD, found his passion on a mountain in Nepal in 1987, and he devoted the rest of his life to pursuing it and ensuring it would live on beyond him. Jim, who lived an incredible life, passed away last week after an extended illness. He and his wife Sarah, who passed away in 2017, leave behind a legacy that will continue having impact on the world of health and health education.

To build on their passion, Jim and Sarah created two prestigious awards—the Fries Prize for Improving Health and the Elizabeth Fries Health Education Award—to honor, encourage and reward those who tirelessly strive to make the world a healthier place.

Jim came up with the idea for a Nobel-like prize for health in a 1987 ascent of Nepal’s Makalu—one of the world’s highest peaks—when he became trapped in a severe snowstorm that threatened the lives of those in his entourage. Following that experience, Jim returned home and worked with Sarah to establish a foundation to support prizes for health. The Fries Prize for Improving Health and the Elizabeth Fries Health Education Award, named in memory of Sarah and Jim’s daughter, have been awarded annually since 1992.

Over the years, Jim and the prize jury that he and Sarah put together ensured that the Fries awards have been presented to dedicated and impactful health professionals who have done the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This includes former U.S. Surgeon General and CDC Director David Satcher, MD, PhD, who received this year’s award for his work to eliminate health disparities. The Elizabeth Fries Health Education Award has been presented to luminaries in the field of health education, including this year’s recipient Spero Manson, PhD, a leading authority on American Indian and Alaska Native health.

Jim’s legacy resonates beyond the Fries awards as well. He served for many years as a professor of medicine at Stanford University.

Jim is nationally and internationally recognized as a leader in conceptualization of strategies to promote healthy aging, behavioral approaches to decrease morbidity, long-term behavioral interventions by randomized clinical trials, and in managing large-scale patient data collection and analysis projects. In 1980, Jim introduced the Compression of Morbidity hypothesis, which has provided the conceptual foundation for health promotion and healthy aging programs.

In addition, Jim established ARAMIS (Arthritis, Rheumatism and Aging Medical Information System) in the 1970s and was its principal investigator for many years. Aramis pioneered the concept for the chronic disease databank. After retiring from Stanford, Jim served as a professor emeritus in the medical school until his death.

Beyond his professional accomplishments, Jim was dedicated to his family, especially his wife Sarah and their children Elizabeth and Greg. Jim and Sarah were always on the go, traveling across the globe together. And, Jim had a keen sense of adventure—running the Boston Marathon and climbing (6) or attempting to climb (1) the highest mountain on each continent were just some of his pursuits.

Our team at the CDC Foundation, which now manages and administers the two Fries awards, is honoring Jim on our website. To offer your own tribute, we invite you to submit a quote about Jim and what he meant to you and the world of health and health education.

On behalf of my colleagues at the CDC Foundation and our board of directors, we celebrate the life and legacy of Jim Fries. Our thoughts are with the Fries family at this time.

Dr. Judy Monroe
Judy Monroe, MD, is president and CEO of the CDC Foundation.