Helen Murray Free, the former president of the American Chemical Society who pioneered dip-and-read tests for diabetes and other diseases, died on Saturday (May 1) in hospice care following complications of a stroke. She was 98 years old.
Born in Philadelphia on February 20, 1923, Free (then Helen Murray) was predominantly raised in Ohio by her father, James, as her mother, Daisy, died of the flu when Free was only six. Although she originally wanted to pursue an English degree, The New York Times reports, there was a push for women to go into STEM fields while their male peers left school for military service following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. She ended up changing her major to chemistry and earned her degree from the College of Wooster in 1945.
Her first job after school was with Miles Laboratories, which has since been acquired by Bayer Diagnostics, in Elkhart, Indiana. Quickly bored with her role doing quality control, she jumped on an opportunity to join a diagnostic research laboratory that was headed up by biochemist Alfred Free. The two were married in 1947 and would continue working together throughout their careers.
At this time, diagnosing diabetes was time-consuming and not completely reliable. It involved performing a series of chemical reactions in a lab that would indicate if glucose was present in a patient’s urine. The Free lab wanted to simplify the process so it could be done at a doctor’s office or a patient’s home.
“It was Al who said, ‘You know, we ought to be able to make this easier and even more convenient than tablets, so no one would have to wash out test tubes and mess around with droppers,’” The Washington Post reports, citing an interview that Free had with the American Chemical Society (ACS) for a 2010 booklet. To do so, they would need to develop a glucose test that would remain stable while exposed to air and light.
What resulted was a paper-strip detector that used gelatin to hold the reagents for a reaction with glucose oxidase and peroxidase in place on the paper as it was dipped into a urine sample. The strip would change colors to indicate the level of glucose present. Clinistix, as the test came to be known, was introduced in 1956 and was the first dip-and-read test for glucose monitoring. Al and Helen Free followed up with similar dip tests that identified certain proteins and ketones, ultimately coming up with Multistix, which can identify multiple diagnostic markers for additional diseases.
Over the years, the pair coauthored two books on diagnostic testing and received seven patents for their innovations. The Frees retired together in 1982, but Helen continued to work with Bayer as a consultant until 2007. She was a fierce advocate for science outreach and worked to help the public understand how chemistry benefits society.
Free was also dedicated to the ACS and received the 1980 ACS Garvan Medal, which honors female leaders in chemistry. She was named president of the ACS in 1993, making her only the third woman to have held that position at the time. In 1995, ACS awarded the inaugural Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach for which the winner receives $1,000.
She was awarded a 2009 National Medal of Technology and Innovation from then-President Barack Obama for her “seminal contributions to diagnostic chemistry through development of dip-and-read urinalysis, which gave rise to a technological revolution in convenient, reliable, point-of-care tests and [patient] self-monitoring.”
She is survived by her six children, three step-children, their spouses, 17 grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren. Her husband's death preceded her own in 2000.