Helen Murray Free Dies at 98; Chemist Developed Diabetes Test

by akoloy

Helen Murray Free, a chemist who ushered in a revolution in diagnostic testing when she co-developed the dip-and-read diabetes check, a paper strip that detected glucose in urine, died on Saturday at a hospice facility in Elkhart, Ind. She was 98.

The trigger was problems of a stroke, her son Eric mentioned.

Before the invention of the dip-and-read check in 1956, technicians added chemical compounds to urine after which heated the combination over a Bunsen burner. The check was inconvenient, and, as a result of it couldn’t distinguish glucose from different sugars, outcomes weren’t very exact.

Working together with her husband, who was additionally a chemist, Ms. Free discovered learn how to impregnate strips of filter paper with chemical compounds that turned blue when glucose was current. The check made it simpler for clinicians to diagnose diabetes and cleared the way in which for house check kits, which enabled sufferers to watch glucose on their very own.

People with diabetes now use blood sugar meters to watch their glucose ranges, however the dip-and-read exams are ubiquitous in medical laboratories worldwide.

Helen Murray was born on Feb. 20, 1923, in Pittsburgh to James and Daisy (Piper) Murray. Her father was a coal firm salesman; her mom died of influenza when Helen was 6.

She entered the College of Wooster in Ohio in 1941, intent on turning into an English or Latin instructor. But she modified her main to chemistry on the recommendation of her housemother; World War II was creating new alternatives for ladies in a discipline that had been a male protect.

“I think that was the most terrific thing that ever happened, because I certainly wouldn’t have done the things I have done in my lifetime,” Ms. Free recalled in a commemorative booklet produced by the American Chemical Society in 2010.

She obtained her bachelor’s diploma in 1944 and went to work for Miles Laboratories in Elkhart, first in high quality management after which within the biochemistry division, which labored on diagnostic exams and was led by her future husband, Alfred Free. They married in 1947.

He provided the ideas; she was the technician “who had the advantage of picking his brain 24 hours a day,” Ms. Free recalled in an interview for this obituary in 2011. They quickly set their sights on creating a extra handy glucose check “so no one would have to wash out test tubes and mess around with droppers,” she mentioned. When her husband instructed chemically handled paper strips, “it was like a light bulb went off,” she mentioned.

They confronted two challenges. First, they wanted to refine the check in order that it might detect solely glucose, the type of sugar that’s discovered within the urine of individuals with diabetes. Second, the chemical compounds they wanted to make use of have been inherently unstable, so that they needed to discover a approach to hold them from reacting to gentle, temperature and air.

The first downside was simply solved with using a just lately developed enzyme that reacted solely to glucose. To stabilize the chemical compounds, the Frees experimented with rubber cement, potato starch, varnish, plaster of Paris and egg albumin earlier than deciding on gelatin, which appeared to work greatest.

With her husband, Ms. Free wrote two books on urinalysis. Later in her profession she returned to highschool, incomes a grasp’s in medical laboratory administration from Central Michigan University in 1978 at age 55. She held a number of patents and printed greater than 200 scientific papers.

At Miles, she rose to director of medical laboratory reagents and later to director of selling providers within the analysis division earlier than retiring in 1982; by then the corporate had been acquired by Bayer. She was elected president of the American Chemical Society in 1993. In 2009, she was awarded a National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Barack Obama, and in 2011 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y., for her function in creating the dip-and-read check.

Alfred Free died in 2000. In addition to her son Eric, Ms. Free is survived by two different sons, Kurt and Jake; three daughters, Bonnie Grisz, Nina Lovejoy and Penny Maloney; a stepson, Charles; two stepdaughters, Barbara Free and Jane Linderman; 17 grandchildren; and 9 great-grandchildren.

Miles Laboratories adopted the introduction of the dip-and-read glucose check with a number of different exams designed to detect proteins, blood and different indicators of metabolic, kidney and liver problems. “They sure went hog wild on diagnostics, and that’s all Al’s fault,” Ms. Free mentioned within the commemorative booklet. “He was the one who pushed diagnostics.”

It wasn’t all easy crusing. Several years after the introduction of the dip-and-read check, Miles moved Ms. Free to a different division, citing an anti-nepotism coverage. But two years later, after a change in administration, she was transferred again to her husband’s division.

“They realized that breaking up a team like this was interfering with productivity in the lab,” Ms. Free mentioned.

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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