Issue Date: August 22, 2011
Helen Free Looks Back
Pioneering chemist and former American Chemical Society president Helen M. Free has long lived in a modest house on the banks of the St. Joseph River in Elkhart, Ind. Inside her home, countless awards, service plaques, and family photos line nearly every one of the wood-paneled walls. Numerous well-worn textbooks and other publications overflow from a small office off the main living area. And through the oversized sliding-glass back door, the river sparkles under a blue summer sky, rippling only inches from the house.
Sitting at her kitchen table under the watchful eye of her friendly black and white cat, Felix, the unassuming chemist settles down to tell C&EN about her long career.
She sips from a prized mug her eldest son, Eric, had printed with a photo of her receiving the National Medal of Technology & Innovation from President Barack Obama last November (C&EN, Oct. 25, 2010, page 10).
The award is perhaps the most significant of the countless honors that Free and her late husband, Alfred H. Free, received after developing the first dip-and-read diagnostic test strips for monitoring glucose in urine while working at Miles Laboratories (now Bayer). In addition to helping diabetics monitor their condition, that 1956 breakthrough led to additional dip-and-read tests for proteins and other substances, which aid in the detection of numerous diseases as well as conditions such as pregnancy.
Although the Frees’ initial discovery took place 55 years ago, other major honors have come to Helen Free recently—something she attributes to public awareness of the increase in type 2 diabetes that is linked to a rise in obesity. In May 2010, ACS honored the Frees’ scientific contributions as its 66th National Historic Chemical Landmark (C&EN, May 24, 2010, page 41). And next month, Free will be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y.
Honored by these accolades, it’s clear that Free does not want to miss a minute of the excitement. At 88, she seems to have boundless energy, keeping a business and pleasure travel schedule that might tire someone half her age. Despite having some health issues, she continues to play nine holes of golf one morning a week, “walking what is only a par-3 course,” she explains while enjoying a burger and a glass of merlot at a local restaurant called Miles Lab during the course of her long talk with C&EN.
Free, according to many who have long known her, has always been exceptional. ACS Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer Madeleine Jacobs notes that Free was one of the first women chemists she met and wrote about when she was a reporter with C&EN from 1969 until 1972. “Helen simply amazed me then, and she amazes me now. She was such a strong role model to me when I was just 23 years old,” Jacobs says. “I thought, yes, you can be a really good chemist and balance your personal life.
“Over the years, Helen has served as a superb role model to thousands of women chemists. She is unstintingly generous with her time and advice,” Jacobs says. “She is always smiling and cheerful and has a fabulous sense of humor. Her laughter is contagious,” she adds. “In addition, I’ve never seen her angry, and I’ve never heard her turn down a request to serve.”
Given the many contributions that Free has willingly made to her field, it’s hard to believe that she didn’t initially plan to study chemistry. When she entered Ohio’s College of Wooster in the midst of World War II, she was intent on becoming a Latin and English teacher, inspired by her English teacher at Poland Seminary High School, in Ohio, where Free finished at the top of her class .
However, as she finished her first semester at Wooster, “Pearl Harbor happened and my house mother said she needed to get some girls interested in science because the fellows were all going to war,” Free recalls. After learning that Free was taking chemistry and making good grades, the house mother asked her if she would switch majors, which the always-congenial Free did without a second thought.
It didn’t take long to fall in love with chemistry, Free says, adding that she “made plans to do wonderful research work and discover something important.” With an inclination that would serve her well, she found she preferred qualitative chemistry over quantitative chemistry. “I liked colorimetric chemical reactions and wanted to see what happened during a reaction.”
After graduating from Wooster in 1944, Free interviewed at Miles Laboratories in Elkhart. On the day of her interview, she was unable to accompany her interviewers to lunch as they were headed to the Friday Club, which admitted only men. “So they dropped me off at the YWCA during the lunch hour,” she recalls with a laugh. She was later offered a job in the quality-control lab at Miles.
“However, after working in the quality-control lab for a short time, I became bored with my work testing vitamins and kept bugging my supervisors to move me over to the research department,” she says. In 1946, they let her interview with a “guy who was coming in to set up a new biochemistry research lab.” That new guy was noted biochemist Alfred Free, who agreed to take her on.
Working alongside one another, Al and Helen soon recognized a mutual attraction. “We thought we were being very discreet,” she says of their subsequent courtship, but later learned that coworkers would often witness a wink or other signs of affection between the two, she says with a laugh. Mary Sproull, who worked with Al and Helen and later became head of human resources for Miles’s Ames Division, says, “It was apparent to everyone that they were madly in love.” Al and Helen were married in 1947.
They became lifelong research partners as well. Early in their career, they began work that would improve laboratory methods to test for glucose in urine. In the early 1940s, the company had already introduced a test called Clinitest, which was developed by Walter Ames Compton, who would later become president and chairman of the board at Miles. The assay improved on an earlier glucose test that involved heating a urine sample with Benedict’s solution of blue alkaline cupric sulfate in a test tube over a Bunsen burner. Under this methodology, if glucose, a reducing substance, was present in the urine, the blue cupric ions would change to orange or red cuprous ions.
The Clinitest assay also used cupric sulfate but replaced the external source of heat with an exothermic reaction between citric acid and sodium hydroxide, Free says.
However, any reducing substance present in urine could give a false positive for glucose. Some antibiotics, for example, are excreted as aminoglycosides. “To get around the problem, Al got the brilliant idea” to base a test on glucose oxidase, which would make it specific for glucose, Free says. In a double sequential enzymatic reaction, glucose oxidase, when combined with glucose in a urine sample, would form hydrogen peroxide and gluconic acid. Then a second enzyme, a peroxidase, would catalyze the oxidation of a chromogen, such as o-toluidine, to form a colored product. The strength of the resulting blue-green color would reflect the amount of peroxide, and therefore glucose, in the urine sample.
“Al then wondered if we could make the test easier and more convenient so no one would have to mess around with test tubes,” she remembers. “He came up with another brilliant idea—to dry the reagents on paper, which could be cut into strips and dipped into the urine specimen.” The result was dip-and-read Clinistix, released in 1956 and still used today.
The pair, working with nearly 100 other Miles scientists, continued their research, improving the test strips, developing manufacturing technologies, and devising tests for other substances. They also conducted research that led to a test that allowed diabetic patients to measure their own blood glucose levels.
Even while focused on groundbreaking research, Free began her lifelong efforts to correct the inequalities encountered by women in the workplace. In the early 1970s, Free joined with Sproull and others to form a women’s committee acting on the state level as an advocacy group for women’s rights and ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment by Indiana, Sproull says.
Free’s knowledge and dedication to her work led to her steady advancement at Miles, where she became director of specialty test systems in 1976. She was director of marketing services for the Research Products Division when Bayer Diagnostics acquired Miles in 1978, the same year she earned an M.A. in health care management from Central Michigan University.
While she progressed through her career, Free gave birth to three sons and three daughters. “During those pregnancies, we would go on a ‘Helen watch’ at work, because she would insist on working right up until the time she delivered,” Sproull recalls. “And then only a few weeks later, she would be back at work.”
To help her manage work and family responsibilities when her children were young, Free would hire a local Amish girl to care for the children and do housework. “I would pick her up at 6 o’clock on Monday morning and I would take her home on Friday night,” she says.
A greater share of the family responsibilities often fell on Free as her husband traveled in his role as “the top technical person for the Miles Ames Division, giving workshops to medical technicians and sales people,” she says. Often, he would be gone at critical times. For example, he left for a business trip to Scotland the day after the birth of their fifth child, whom they fittingly named Bonnie. As the children grew, Helen and Al had a tradition where each child would accompany them on one of their overseas trips, something they all enjoyed immensely, Free says.
Despite the demands of their work, “the Frees were great parents, who expected a lot of hard work out of their children and also spent a great deal of quality time with them.” Sproull says.
Today, Free maintains a close bond with her six children and Al’s three children from a previous marriage. Only one of the nine has gone into chemistry. Al’s oldest son, Charles, earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and carved out a long career at Bristol-Myers Squibb, Free says.
All of the Free children attended both the ACS chemical landmark ceremony in Elkhart and the National Medal of Technology & Innovation ceremony at the White House.
Her children recently established the endowed Helen Murray Free Lecture Series at the College of Wooster. Distinguished chemists including Mary L. Good, Harry B. Gray, Richard N. Zare, Jacqueline K. Barton, and Sara Risch have already presented lectures in her name at Wooster, says Free, delighted at their willingness to participate. Free has attended every lecture.
“Spending time with Helen sharing thoughts about chemistry and students as I did during my lecture visit to the college was a real treat,” Gray says. “It’s clear that Free’s devotion to her alma mater has had a large impact on the lives of many students.”
Indeed, supporting students has been one of Free’s lifelong passions. After her retirement from Bayer in 1982, she became a champion for science education and outreach, chairing ACS’s National Chemistry Week Task Force from its inception in 1987 until 1992.
And she still serves on the board of directors of Elkhart-based nonprofit ETHOS, which helps bring the best science curriculum and instruction to local students to encourage their interest in science and technology.
Primarily through her long association with ACS, Free has been able to share her love of chemistry with a broad audience. As ACS president in 1993, she made improving the public’s awareness of chemistry’s contributions to the quality of daily life her top priority. In honor of her contributions, ACS created the Helen M. Free Award in Public Outreach in 1995, naming her its first recipient.
“Helen’s contributions to the American Chemical Society are too numerous to name,” Jacobs says. Pointing to Free’s start serving for many years as secretary, chairman, and councilor of the St. Joseph Valley Section, Jacobs says, “It is hard to think of anyone who has done more for ACS over the past 50-plus years.”
Free plans to attend the ACS national meeting in Denver later this month, where she will again present the Helen M. Free Award. The meeting is just one of the many events on her summer calendar. In early July, she traveled to Idaho to attend the 90th birthday celebration of Forrest M. Bird, an aviator, biomedical engineer, and inventor of the respirator. Free became acquainted with Bird through the National Inventors Hall of Fame, into which the Frees were inducted in 2000.
After going over the many accomplishments in her life, Free pauses thoughtfully when asked what she considers to be her greatest contribution. “I think I am most proud of the fact that I am an advocate for kids—especially girls—to help them get interested in science,” she says.
Free pulls a two-year-old thank-you card from the many papers that cling to the front of her refrigerator, noting that it came from a group of nine- to 11-year-old girls who were organizing a support group for diabetic girls. She explains that they had invited her to give a speech and hands-on demonstration to them at an event organized by the Central Texas Section of ACS at the University of Texas, Austin, campus. “During the event, one of the girls’ mothers stood up and said, ‘Thank you for my daughter’s life. Thank you for inventing these test strips that allow her to measure her blood sugar, and monitor her condition, so she can live like other girls,’ ” Free recalls as tears fill her eyes. Her emotions speak volumes about the personal satisfaction she has found in her work—both as a science advocate and as a chemist.
For the many contributions she has made throughout her lifetime, Free is most certainly “a true American heroine,” ACS’s Jacobs says.
Gray echoes this point: “Her passion for chemistry as a young woman led her to discoveries that have had a profound impact on the quality of life for millions of people suffering from diabetes. She is a heroine in our profession, no doubt about it.”
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