Most famous for inventing Clinistix® — the “dip-and-read” test that for the first time allowed diabetics to monitor their blood glucose level instantly at home. Her contributions to laboratory science have even been recognized on the show, Jeopardy!
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Helen Murray Free first wanted to be an English and Latin teacher, but World War II changed all that. In December 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed, many young men either enlisted or were drafted into military service. Because of this, many women were encouraged to pursue careers in science to fill the technological void, so Helen, who grew up in Youngstown, OH, decided to major in chemistry, entering the College of Wooster in Ohio to fulfill this quest. She would later say that her decision to become a chemist was “the most terrific thing” that ever happened to her. After graduating from Wooster, Helen immediately began working as a quality control chemist for Miles Laboratories (known as the creators of Alka-Seltzer). She was later hired as a researcher in the lab Miles Laboratories chemist Alfred Free. Helen became one of Free’s most talented researchers. They married in 1947 (later having six children together) and continued to collaborate on groundbreaking work in laboratory and diagnostic testing techniques, particularly in the area of urinalysis.
Why She’s Important: She is most known for her creation of many self-testing systems for diabetes while working at Miles Laboratories ( which is now owned by Bayer AG). The most important of her tests was Clinistix® — the “dip-and-read” test that for the first time allowed diabetics to monitor their blood glucose level instantly at home instead of having them go each week to the hospital for such procedures. Clinistix® (which tests for glucose in urine) is comprised of diagnostic test strips which are saturated with reagents (chemical reaction substances). The strips change color based on the concentration of glucose they come in contact with. This breakthrough led to additional dip-and-read tests for proteins and other substances. Such innovations allow patients an inexpensive, convenient means to help them manage such conditions as diabetes and kidney disease, thereby significantly improving patients’ quality of life. She holds seven patents for her clinical diagnostic test inventions.
Other Achievements: Her seminal work in laboratory and diagnostic testing resulted in Helen being awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2010 by President Obama. Other honors include: her book, “Urinalysis in Laboratory Practice” (which she co-authored with her husband) remains a standard work in laboratory science. In addition, she has been inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame; the American Chemical Society (ACS) has named the ACS Helen M. Free Public Outreach Award in her honor, and the ACS has designated the development of diagnostic test strips as a national historic chemical landmark. Her contributions to laboratory science have also been included on the show, Jeopardy, as a question.
Current Activities: She serves as a consultant for Bayer AG, and has earned noteriety as a staunch promoter of science education, including devoting special attention to female and underprivileged students through programs such as “Kids & Chemistry” and “Expanding Your Horizons.”
Education: Helen earned her Bachelor’s of Science degree (with honors) from the College of Wooster in Ohio, and her Master’s of Arts degree in Management (Health Care Administration) from Central Michigan University. She also served as an Adjunct Professor of Management at Indiana University, South Bend, for almost twenty years.
In Her Own Words: “In my work with students, I tell them that they can do anything they want — anything they want — as long as they work hard at it and try.”
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