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Elias Fries

Elias Fries was born on August 15th 1794 as the only child in the vicarage at Femsjö, a small solitary parish in the western part of Småland close to the border to Halland.

He grew up at the turn of the 18th century. As there were hardly any children at his age around, he was taught by his father, pastor Thore Fries who had a keen interest in botany. He was taught in Latin, a language that now and then was used at home as well. Only in 1803, at the age of 9, did Elias start school in Växjö.

Already at home in Femsjö, he showed great interest in nature. He wrote scientifically interesting diaries, and already as a secondary school student he edited lists over plants, among them "Flora Femsionensis". Elias Fries published floras and papers in botany at an early age, but it was fungi that really fascinated him. One of the reasons might be that the area around Femsjö is rich in fungi whereas the variety of higher plants is not as extensive.

In 1811, Elias was offered the possibly to study at the University of Lund. In 1814, only 20 years old, he took his PhD. He stayed at Lund University and worked there as lecturer and assistant master. In 1834, he moved to Uppsala where he had been offered a professorship.

During his time in Lund, he had set up a system for higher fungi (Hymenomyceten) and for lower fungi. Though there were a few errors, this was a first important step in systematizing fungi. His work was published in several smaller publications and the extensive "Systema mycologicum(1821-1832). He also investigated algae and lichens and presented this in "Lichenes Suecciae exsiccati".

Elias Fries acceded to the new professorship in Practical Economy (!) at the Faculty of Natural Sciences in Uppsala. His botanical engagement broadened again, he edited a flora for Scandinavia, "Summa vegetabilum Scandinaviae" as well as the more popular scientific "Botanical Excursions" 1-3, (1843-1864) with a literally touch. Certainly, these publications helped Elias Fries getting voted into the Swedish Academy. He continued working mainly on fungi, though. Among others, he published "Hymenomycetes Europaei" (1874) as well as "The Edible and Poisonous Fungi of Sweden" as a poster (1860-1866), and "Icones selectae hymenomycetum nondum delineatorum I. Volume II was published by his sons Thore Magnus and Robert (1878-1884).

In addition to his scientific work, Elias Fries tried to "teach the Swedish people to consume fungi". Having grown up in an environment without abundance, Elias had learned to use what nature had to offer. Fungi could not only enrich a meal, they could be a delicates as well. In spite of this engagement in public education, fungi were supposedly not consumed in his household in Uppsala!

Elias Fries did not, as Linné and his students, travel around the world to do research; his longest journey took him to Berlin to a meeting of natural scientists. His life was probably of a more quiet nature: ordinary people did not show him extensive respect. This might explain why his propaganda for fungi was successful - or could be questioned. In the introduction to "The Edible and Poisonous Fungi of Sweden" he wrote: "During my visits to Stockholm during autumn, I frequently inspected the fungi offered on the market at Munkbron. Certainly, the most were of the better kind, but sometimes I found baskets of poisonous mushrooms as well, e.g. Russula foetens. Pointing this out, I was told: oh, mister, mind your own business". This is one of the many anecdotes about Elias Fries.

Elias Fries birth certificate from 1794
Elias Fries birth certificate from 1794 (Click on image to enlage)

Portrait of Elias Fries painted by J. G. Sandberg 1830
Portrait of Elias Fries painted by J. G. Sandberg 1830 (Photo: Staffan Waerndt, Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet)

© Elias Fries Ättlingar  2003