Photo of Helen Free

Helen Free

  • National Medal of Technology and Innovation
  • Medicine

For her seminal contributions to diagnostic chemistry through development of dip-and-read urinalysis, which gave rise to a technological revolution in convenient, reliable, point-of-care tests and patient self-monitoring.

Helen Free on how she became interested in chemistry

Pearl Harbor changed a lot of things about America, but, as it turns out, it also changed the lives of diabetics in the US and around the world.

Helen Free was a young English and Latin major at Wooster College when the attack occurred. As men began leaving college to join the armed forces, women were encouraged to take their place in the scientific fields. Free, who was enjoying her chemistry class, switched her major.

After graduation, she went to work for a biochemistry company Miles (now Bayer), where she eventually talked her way into joining a research group. The group was headed by biochemist Alfred Free. The two would marry two years after meeting and go on to revolutionize diagnostic testing.

Together, they came up with a chemically coated paper stick that was able to measure blood sugar by changing color when dipped in a urine sample. The ‘dip-and-read’ test marked the end of weekly hospital visits for diabetic patients. Before, monitoring blood sugar had involved complicated laboratory tests, now it could be done quickly and cheaply at home. That invention quickly led to others that could help with the management and diagnosis of conditions as varied as kidney disease, pregnancy, and Hepatitis A.

The ease of testing and reading results with dip-and-read sticks, along with their low cost of manufacture, means that they continue to save, extend, and better the quality of life for people in the United States and around the world. They are especially useful in underdeveloped countries where access to hospitals and doctors is often unavailable.

The Frees worked as a team throughout their careers and after retiring in 1982, turned their attention to science education. Even after Alfred’s death in 2000, Helen continued to work as an outspoken advocate for science education, especially for women and minority students.