A distinguished chemist and promoter of science, Helen Murray Free invented a number of tests that revolutionized certain types of analyses in the laboratory and diagnoses at home.
Free was born Helen Mae Murray in Pittsburgh in 1923. She majored in Chemistry at the College of Wooster in Ohio (BS with honors, 1944) and went directly to a research position at Miles Laboratories, Inc. (makers of Alka Seltzer) in Elkhart, Indiana. Thus began Free’s over 50-year career of research and education in science.
Three years after beginning work at Miles, she married Albert Alfred Free in 1947. Often working together, they became two of the world’s leading experts on urinalysis, an essential clinical procedure with countless applications. Free first developed dry reagents for use in laboratory urinalysis that are now, in tablet form, standard around the world. She went on to develop more consumer-oriented devices. The most important of these was a “dip-and-read” test that, for the first time, allowed diabetics to monitor their blood glucose level instantly and at home.
By 1975, Free had earned seven patents for her improvements in medical and clinical urinalysis testing. That year, she and her husband co-authored their second book, "Urinalysis in Laboratory Practice," which is still a standard work in the field. Meanwhile, Free had steadily climbed the ladder at Miles Labs. Holding, among others, the posts of New Products Manager and Director of Clinical Laboratory Reagents, she became an expert in public and professional relations.
Miles was eventually bought out by Bayer, Inc., and for over ten years, Free has been Professional Relations Consultant in their Diagnostics Division. She also earned an MA in Management (Health Care Administration) from Central Michigan University (1978) and was an Adjunct Professor of Management at Indiana University, South Bend, for almost twenty years.
In these roles and through her active participation in professional associations (President, American Association for Clinical Chemistry, 1990; President, American Chemical Society [ACS], 1993), Free has won fame as a promoter of science education – in the sense of educating the public about the value of science, as well as educating aspiring scientists. Free has devoted special attention to female and underprivileged students, through programs such as “Kids & Chemistry” and “Expanding Your Horizons.”
Helen Murray Free has won numerous awards for her work, including the ACS’ Garvan Medal (1980), the South Bend YWCA’s Woman of the Year Award (1993), and the Kilby Award (1996). In fact, in 1995, the ACS created the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach to honor her. Both Helen and her husband were indicted into the National Inventors Hall of fame in 2000, shortly after Alfred’s death.