The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number
(Photo above: Dr. James F. Fries)
By Diana Robelotto, CDC Foundation
How do you take on the daunting task of recognizing individuals who have made major accomplishments in health, saving and improving lives through their dedicated work to help others? This is a question Dr. James F. Fries, then a professor of medicine at Stanford University, pondered more than 30 years ago in an unlikely setting.
During a 1987 ascent of Nepal’s Makalu—one of the world’s highest peaks—Fries and his party became trapped in a life-threatening snowstorm that ultimately forced the group to abandon their climb. But an incredible idea began to take shape on the failed attempt to master the mountain. During the time trapped in his tent, Fries decided to start the Fries Prize for Improving Health, what he envisioned would be a Nobel-like prize for health.
Upon his return to sea level, Fries and with his wife Sarah, set about establishing a foundation to support the prize, which is now a $60,000 award given annually to an individual judged by an expert panel to have done the greatest good for the greatest number in the field of health. Sarah Fries remained active in the Fries Prize awards until her death in May 2017. The Fries Foundation set up the prize to be awarded to an educator, scientist, program inventor, activist, public figure, private citizen, or any other person who has made a significant contribution to improvement of the public’s health.
First presented in 1992, the Fries Prize for Improving Health is intended for an individual who has done the most to improve health outcomes. A second award was also created at that time, called the Elizabeth Fries Health Education Award. This award was named in memory of the Fries’ daughter, Elizabeth, a professor and health educator who died of complications from breast cancer at the age of 42. This award recognizes a health educator who has made a substantial contribution to advancing the field of health education or health promotion through research, program development or program delivery.
Over time, the Fries Prize for Improving Health has been given to some of the greatest names in public health protection, such as:
- Dr. William Foege, former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, whose visionary leadership helped lead to the worldwide eradication of smallpox;
- Dr. C. Everett Koop, former U.S. surgeon general, who strongly advocated for the reduction of cigarette smoking and AIDS prevention; and
- Dr. Roy Vagelos, former CEO of Merck and Co., whose donation of Mectizan greatly reduced the high prevalence of river blindness in Africa.
The CDC Foundation is honored to partner with the James F. and Sarah T. Fries Foundation, which established and funds the awards. In January 2016, the CDC Foundation assumed management and administration of both of the Fries Foundation’s public health award programs.
The next Fries Prize for Improving Health award will be presented during the upcoming American Public Health Association annual meeting in San Diego on November 12, 2018. To learn more about past awardees and this prize, please visit our website.
Diana Robelotto is director of alumni affairs and fries prize administrator for the CDC Foundation.