Helen Murray Free

Born: February 20, 1923 | Pittsburgh, PA, US
Photograph of Helen Murray Free

After completing her BS in chemistry, Helen M. Free first researched assays of antibiotics before moving to dry reagent test systems. Working with tablets, Free helped develop tests to detect abnormal levels of bilirubin, glucose, ketone, and protein in urine. When Bayer Corporation acquired Miles Laboratories, Free stayed with the company, moving into the Growth and Development Department, then becoming Director of Specialty Test Systems. Free formally retired in 1982. She served as president of the American Chemical Society in 1993.

The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.

			

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0176
No. of pages: 55
Minutes: 165

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
14 December 1998
Elkhart, Indiana

Abstract of Interview

Helen Free begins the interview with a discussion of her family and childhood growing up in Ohio. Free attended Poland Seminary High School in Ohio. She was greatly influenced by her English teacher at Poland and she thereon intended to become an English and Latin teacher. In September 1941, Free entered the College of Wooster. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of the same year, many young men either joined or were drafted into the armed forces, which forced them to leave academics behind. Because of this, Free's housemother encouraged female students to pursue careers in science. Without reservation, Free switched her major to Chemistry in which she received her BS in 1944. After graduation, Free immediately began working as a control chemist with Miles Laboratories. In 1946, she moved into the new biochemistry department at Miles, where she worked for her future husband, Alfred Free. She first researched assays of antibiotics before moving to dry reagent test systems. Working with tablets, Free helped develop tests to detect abnormal levels of bilirubin, glucose, ketone, and protein in urine. Later, Free worked with her husband to move the tests from tablets to strips, introducing Clinistix in 1956. Several other testing strips were developed and added to the market, including Uristix, Ketostix, Dextrostox, Labstix, and a still-current product, Multistix. When Bayer Corporation acquired Miles Laboratories, Free stayed with the company, moving into the Growth and Development Department, then becoming Director of Specialty Test Systems. Free formally retired in 1982, but continues to work as a consultant for Bayer Corporation's Diagnostics Division. Free served as the president of the American Chemical Society in 1993 and continues to be involved with the organization. Free is also affiliated with the American Association for Clinical Chemistry, Inc. and remains involved in several chemistry awareness programs, including the International Chemistry Celebration, National Chemistry Week, National Science and Technology Week, the National Chemical Historical Landmark Program, and Medical Laboratory Week. Free concludes the interview with a discussion of her children and thoughts on the National Registry in Clinical Chemistry.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1944 College of Wooster BS Chemistry
1978 Central Michigan University MA Management

Professional Experience

Miles Laboratories, Inc

1944 to 1946
Control Chemist
1946 to 1959
Research Chemist, Biochemistry Section, Miles-Ames Research Laboratory
1959 to 1964
Associate Research Biochemistry and Group Leader, Ames Research Laboratory
1964 to 1966
Ames Product Development Laboratory
1966 to 1969
Ames Technical Services
1969 to 1974
New Products Manager, Chemical, Medical or Clinical Test Systems, Ames Growth and Development
1974 to 1976
Manager, Microbiological Test Systems
1976 to 1978
Director, Specialty Test Systems, Ames Company
1978 to 1979
Director Clinical Laboratory Reagents, Research Products Division
1979 to 1982
Director, Marketing Services
1982
Bayer Diagnostics, Professional Relations Consultant

Indiana University South Bend

1977
Adjunct Faculty

Honors

Year(s) Award
1967

Honor Scroll Award, Chicago Chapter, American Institute of Chemists

1976

Professional Achievement Award, American Society for Medical Technology

1977

Ames Company Honoree, YWCA Honors Luncheon #1

1978

Bellringer's Award, Elkhart United Fund

1978

Honorary Member, Iota Sigma Pi

1980

Distinguished Alumni Award, The College of Wooster

1980

Garvan Medal for Distinguished Service to Chemistry, American Chemical Society

1981

Silver Bowl Award, Elkhart YWCA Honors for Professions

1981

Service Award, St. Joseph Valley Section, American Chemical Society

1983

Mosher Award, Santa Clara Valley Section, American Chemical Society

1986

Al Dietz Service Award, Chicago Section, American Association for Clinical Chemistry, Inc.

1986

Medical Economics Forty-Year Award

1991

Diploma of Honor, Association of Clinical Scientists

1992

Woman of the Year, Business and Profession Division, St. Joseph County YWCA

1992

Sigma Delta Epsilon, Honorary Member

1992

Hall of Excellence Award, Ohio Foundation of Independent Colleges

1992

Honorary Doctorate of Science, The College of Wooster

1993

Honorary Doctorate of Science, Central Michigan University

1994

Laboratory Public Service National Leadership Award, Washington G-2 Reports

1995

Helen M. Free Award in Public Outreach, American Chemical Society

1995

Alumna of the Year Award, Poland, OH Schools

1996

Engineering and Science Hall of Fame Induction

1996

Kirby Foundation Award

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Parents. Attending school in Youngstown and Poland, Ohio. Influence of English teacher. Attending the College of Wooster. Decision to switch major to chemistry. Chemistry department at Wooster.

Career Beginnings
7

Accepting position with Miles Laboratories. Working in Control Lab. Interviewing with Alfred Free. Biochemical research. Assaying antibiotics. Developing dry reagent test systems. Clinitest, Acetest, Ictotest. Movement from tablet tests to strip tests.

Research
15

Clinistix. Emphasis on diagnostics. Competition. Quality control. User resistance to strip tests. Marketing. Albustix, Ketostix, Uristix, Diastix, Dextrotest, Dextrostix, Combistix. Sue Ellen Cross. Phenistix. Choosing color charts. Labstix. Transfer to development lab.

Career with Miles
26

Bayer's acquisition of Miles Laboratories. German language lessons. Receiving management degree from Central Michigan University. Moving into Miles Growth and Development Department. Reflectance meters. Research Products Division. Acquisition of Pentex. Role as a woman in science.

Celebrating Chemistry
35

Role in American Chemical Society (ACS). Becoming President of ACS. Dissemination of chemistry to public. International Chemistry Celebration. National Chemistry Week. National Chemical Historic Landmark Program. World of Color. American Association for Clinical Chemistry, Inc. Medical Laboratory Week.

Conclusion
43

Family and children. Work with the National Registry in Clinical Chemistry. Interviewing chemists.

Notes
48
Index
49

About the Interviewer

James J. Bohning

James J. Bohning was professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he had been a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was CHF’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.  Bohning passed away in September 2011.