Honoring the Life and Legacy of Sarah Fries

If you’re lucky enough in life, you get the opportunity to meet people who are successful, innovative and are focused on others more than self. Working in the nonprofit world, I am fortunate to come into contact with many people that fit these attributes, but some scale to heights above this status, both literally and figuratively.

One of those individuals is Sarah Tilton Fries, M.P.H., co-founder of the Fries Prize for Improving Health and the Elizabeth Fries Health Education Award. Sarah died last week after a long health battle—a battle that did not slow down her commitment, along with that of her husband Jim Fries, M.D., to honoring heroes in health and health education. While we at the CDC Foundation mourn Sarah’s death, we also pause to remember her amazing life and legacy.

In her career, Sarah experienced great success with Healthtrac, the tailored health-improvement company that she and Jim founded together in the 1980s and where Sarah served as president and CEO for 16 years. In addition to his work with Sarah, Jim served as a professor of medicine at Stanford University, which he joined in 1969 and where he currently is a professor emeritus. While Sarah and Jim have much to be proud of in their illustrious careers, I know that the Fries Prizes are the professional achievements that have given them the most joy and satisfaction.

As amazing as the legacy of the prizes is the circumstances in which they were originally imagined. Jim came up with the idea for the Fries Prize in a 1987 ascent of Nepal’s Makalu—one of the world’s highest peaks—when his party became trapped in a severe snowstorm that threatened the lives of everyone in the group.

Following that experience, Jim returned to sea level and set about with Sarah establishing a foundation to support a Nobel-like prize 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.

Like Jim, Sarah reached her own mountain peaks in her worldwide travels. Before her illness, Sarah climbed Mount Kilimanjaro as well as dozens of other mountains in Colorado. More recently, she and Jim traveled globally, including one year in which they traveled to all seven continents.

When I think about Sarah and Jim Fries, the word that comes first to my mind is devotion. Sarah and Jim showed great devotion to their family and to each other. And, they devoted themselves to making the world a better place by using their personal gifts to acknowledge and reward individuals for achievements in health improvement and health education. Their desire, I know, is that by highlighting those health heroes who have changed the trajectory of human health that others will pick up that mantle going forward.

Our team at the CDC Foundation, which now manages and administers the two Fries prizes, is honoring Sarah on our website. To offer your own tribute, we invite you to submit a quote about Sarah and what she 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 Sarah Fries, and we send out our thoughts to Jim Fries and the entire Fries family.


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