Helen Murray Free Dies at 98; Chemist Developed Diabetes Check
Helen Murray Free, a chemist who started a revolution in diagnostic testing when she helped develop the dip-and-read diabetes test, a strip of paper that detects glucose in urine, died Saturday at a hospice facility in Elkhart, Indiana 98
The cause was complications from a stroke, said her son Eric.
Before the invention of the dip-and-read test in 1956, technicians added chemicals to urine and then heated the mixture over a bunsen burner. The test was inconvenient and since it could not distinguish glucose from other sugars, the results were not very accurate.
Working with her husband, who was also a chemist, Ms. Free figured out how to impregnate strips of filter paper with chemicals that turned blue when glucose was present. The test made it easier for doctors to diagnose diabetes and paved the way for home test kits that patients could use to monitor glucose themselves.
People with diabetes now use blood glucose meters to monitor their glucose levels. However, the dip-and-read tests are ubiquitous in clinical laboratories around the world.
Helen Murray was born on February 20, 1923 in Pittsburgh to James and Daisy (Piper) Murray. Her father was a salesman for a coal company; Her mother died of influenza when Helen was 6 years old.
She entered the College of Wooster in Ohio in 1941 to become an English or Latin teacher. On the advice of her housemother, she changed her major to chemistry. World War II opened up new opportunities for women in an area reserved for men only.
“I think that was the worst thing that ever happened because I certainly would not have done the things I did in my life,” Ms. Free recalled in a commemorative brochure published by the American Chemical Society in 2010.
She received her bachelor’s degree in 1944 and worked for Miles Laboratories in Elkhart, first in quality control and then in the biochemistry department that worked on diagnostic tests and was headed by her future husband, Alfred Free. They married in 1947.
He provided the ideas; She was the technician “who had the advantage of searching his brain 24 hours a day,” Ms. Free recalled in an interview for this obituary in 2011. They soon set out to develop a more convenient glucose test, “so that nobody this could have done washing out test tubes and playing around with droppers, ”she said. When her husband suggested chemically treated strips of paper, “It was like a lightbulb going out,” she said.
You faced two challenges. First, they had to refine the test to only detect glucose, the form of sugar found in the urine of people with diabetes. Second, the chemicals they had to use were inherently unstable, so they had to find a way to keep them from reacting to light, temperature, and air.
The first problem could easily be solved with a recently developed enzyme that only responded to glucose. To stabilize the chemicals, the Frees experimented with gum cement, potato starch, varnish, plaster of paris, and egg albumin before settling on gelatin, which seemed to work best.
With her husband, Ms. Free wrote two books on urinalysis. She returned to school later in her career and earned a Masters in Clinical Laboratory Management from Central Michigan University in 1978 at the age of 55. She held several patents and published more than 200 scientific papers.
At Miles, she was promoted to director of clinical laboratory reagents and later director of marketing services in the research division before retiring in 1982. Until then, the company had been taken over by Bayer. She was elected President of the American Chemical Society in 1993. In 2009 she was awarded a National Medal for Technology and Innovation by President Barack Obama. In 2011, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, NY, for her role in developing the dip-and-read test.
Alfred Free died in 2000. In addition to their son Eric, two other sons, Kurt and Jake, survive Mrs. Free. three daughters, Bonnie Grisz, Nina Lovejoy, and Penny Moloney; a stepson, Charles; two stepdaughters, Barbara Free and Jane Linderman; 17 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
Miles Laboratories followed the introduction of the Dip-and-Read Glucose Test with a number of other tests to detect protein, blood, and other indicators of metabolic, kidney, and liver disease. “You went really crazy on the diagnosis and it’s all Al’s fault,” Ms. Free said in the commemorative brochure. “He was the one who pushed the diagnosis forward.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. A few years after the dip-and-read test was introduced, Miles moved Ms. Free to another department and referred to an anti-nepotism policy. Two years later, after a change in management, she was reassigned to her husband’s department.
“They found that breaking up such a team hurt productivity in the lab,” said Ms. Free.
Alex Traub contributed to the coverage.