Helen Murray Free, a chemist who revolutionized the way we test for diabetes, has passed away. She was 98 years old.
Helen, who was born Helen Mae Murray in Pittsburgh on February 20, 1923, moved to Youngstown, Ohio at the age of three, then to Poland, Ohio, where she spent most of her adolescence. After she lost her mother to influenza at the age of six, her father supported her with his work as a coal salesman.
When Helen entered college in 1941, it was uncommon for women to hold many different types of jobs that they are able to now. They could really only be “secretaries, nurses or teachers.” Helen was enrolled in the College of Wooster in Ohio studying English and Latin with the intent to become a teacher.
But then everything changed. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, launching the United States into World War II. As young men began leaving college and careers to join the war, there was more room for women in positions that weren’t ordinarily open to them.
Still, there was some opposition to women in the workforce. Helen recalled her Latin professor wondering “why this girl wants to give up the marvelous world of mythology to work in a smelly old lab.” But on the advice of her housemother, she changed her major to chemistry and became a scientist.
“Just like that!” she told the American Chemical Society years later. “I think that was the most terrific thing that ever happened because I certainly wouldn’t have done the things I’ve done in my lifetime.”
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After graduation, Helen spent decades as a chemist at Miles Laboratories in Indiana. In partnership with her husband, Alfred Free, she developed a dip-and-read glucose test in 1956 that helped revolutionize diabetes care. She said they always based their research around the question of “What can we do now for the future?”
At the time that Helen began her career, glucose tests were imprecise and difficult to perform. Urine was collected and then combined with a reagent in a test tube, which was then heated over a Bunsen burner. The sample changed color according to the amount of sugar present in the urine. Helen and her colleagues, however, were able to improve that method and then develop an entirely new type of glucose test.
“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,'” Helen later recalled.
The new test, dubbed “Clinistix,” was more accurate, less expensive, and easier to perform than the previous versions. The dip-and-read method didn’t require a test tube or a heat source, and the results showed up in seconds. It even enabled people to conduct glucose tests at home rather than in the hospital.
Helen and her team later worked on other dip-and-read tests for kidney and liver disease. She went on to serve as director of marketing services for Miles Laboratories and a consultant for Bayer.
She would later return to school at Central Michigan University to obtain a master’s degree in healthcare management in 1978. She retired in 1982, after which she chaired the American Chemical Society and continued working to promote science education for underserved youth and young women.
“People always get little boys chemistry sets for Christmas. Give a little girl a chemistry set,” Helen said when she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011. “Science is not a girls’ thing, but it should be. Once you find out the joy of discovery, nothing can beat that thrill.”
Helen and Alfred were both inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2000, shortly after Alfred’s death. In 2009, Helen won the National Medal of Technology and Innovation for her “seminal contributions to diagnostic chemistry.”
“The ease of testing and reading results with dip-and-read sticks, along with their low cost of manufacture, means that they continue to save, extend, and better the quality of life for people in the United States and around the world,” says the text on an explanation of Helen’s National Medal of Technology and Innovation.
Helen passed away on May 1st, 2021, at a hospice facility in Elkhart, Indiana, from complications of a stroke at the age of 98. She is survived by her six children, Eric Free, Kurt Free, Jake Free, Penny Moloney, Bonnie Free, and Nina Lovejoy. Also surviving are her three stepchildren, Barb Free, Jane Linderman, and Charles Alfred “Mike” Free, as well as 17 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
The research and development conducted by Helen Murray Free, her husband Alfred Free, and their colleagues, has likely saved many lives and made managing diabetes easy for countless people. May this amazing woman rest in peace as her brilliant work lives on.
Check out this video to learn more about Helen’s unique and amazing career.Whizzco