Elias Judah Durand was born in Canandaigua, New York to Rufus Durand, a farmer, and Anna Maria Sisson. He received his bachelor's degree in botany and entomology from Cornell University in 1893 and his Doctor of Science in botany in 1895 under George Francis Atkinson at Cornell. Following graduation he taught botany and mycology at Cornell until 1910, first as a fellow and later as an instructor. In 1910, Durand was appointed professor of botany at the University of Missouri, where he remained until 1918. In 1918, Durand was named professor at the University of Minnesota, where from 1920-1921 he was the Chairman of the Department of Botany. He remained at the University of Minnesota until his death from cancer on 29 October 1922. Durand is buried in the Durand family plot in Woodlawn Cemetery in Canandaigua, New York. He married Anna Louise Perry on 6 September 1899 and had one child, Anna Louise Durand (d. 1981), on 6 June 1901. Anna Louise died shortly after giving birth to their daughter on 11 June 1901. He married Sue Gertrude Stone (d. 1957) on 24 July 1917.
Durand contributed to a broad range of botanical sciences, ranging from bryology and pteridology to mycology. He was recognized and highly respected as an authority on discomycetes, and was one of the first Americans to study the group extensively. His personal collection, numbering 12,087 specimens of discomycetes, including 16 types, 27 paratypes, 2 syntypes, and 6,000 microscope slides, was deposited in the Plant Pathology Herbarium at Cornell University (CUP), helping establish that herbarium as a leading center for the study of discomycetes. Durand's collections included 650 types (mostly discomycetes) from other authors and herbaria, currently stored at Cornell University. Additional specimens Durand collected are stored in the herbaria of the Field Museum of Natural History, the University of Kentucky, the University of Minnesota, the New York Botanical Garden, and Pomona College.
E.J. Durand described a total of 25 new species, one new form, one new variety, and made 20 new combinations of species. As of 2014, nine of his species and ten recombinations are still accepted (having not been assigned to another genus or reduced to synonymy under previously published names). Durand also described two genera, Gloeoglossum and Ionomidotis which were both later reduced to synonymy.
Durand earned his Doctorate of Science under G.F. Atkinson at Cornell. Durand belongs to the mycological lineage of William Russel Dudley. Dudley was a student and assistant under Albert Nelson Prentiss, who was the first head of the Department of Botany at Cornell University. Dudley mentored G.F. Atkinson who later returned to Cornell when Dudley left in 1892. While Durand did not directly mentor any students who would later become professional mycologists, he was well-regarded as an instructor in undergraduate courses.
While a student at Cornell, Durand was a member of Sigma Xi, Quill and Dagger, Congress, the Classical Association, and the Natural History Society (of which he was president in his senior year). Durand was a charter member of the American Mycological Society (which merged with the Botanical Society of America in 1903). He was also a member of the American Phytopathological Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.