Helen Murray Free, a chemist who ushered in a revolution in diagnostic testing when she co-developed the dip-and-read diabetes take a look at, a paper strip that detected glucose in urine, died on Saturday at a hospice facility in Elkhart, Ind. She was 98.
The trigger was issues of a stroke, her son Eric mentioned.
Earlier than the invention of the dip-and-read take a look at in 1956, technicians added chemical compounds to urine after which heated the combination over a Bunsen burner. The take a look at was inconvenient, and, as a result of it couldn’t distinguish glucose from different sugars, outcomes weren’t very exact.
Working along with her husband, who was additionally a chemist, Ms. Free found out find out how to impregnate strips of filter paper with chemical compounds that turned blue when glucose was current. The take a look at made it simpler for clinicians to diagnose diabetes and cleared the way in which for dwelling take a look at kits, which enabled sufferers to observe glucose on their very own.
Folks with diabetes now use blood sugar meters to observe their glucose ranges, however the dip-and-read checks are ubiquitous in scientific 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 Faculty of Wooster in Ohio in 1941, intent on changing into an English or Latin trainer. However she modified her main to chemistry on the recommendation of her housemother; World Battle II was creating new alternatives for ladies in a subject that had been a male protect.
“I believe that was essentially the most terrific factor that ever occurred, as a result of I actually wouldn’t have executed the issues I’ve executed in my lifetime,” Ms. Free recalled in a commemorative booklet produced by the American Chemical Society in 2010.
She received her bachelor’s degree in 1944 and went to work for Miles Laboratories in Elkhart, first in quality control and then in the biochemistry division, which worked on diagnostic tests 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 soon set their sights on developing a more convenient glucose test “so no one would have to wash out test tubes and mess around with droppers,” she said. When her husband suggested chemically treated paper strips, “it was like a light bulb went off,” she said.
They faced two challenges. First, they needed to refine the test so that it would detect only glucose, the form of sugar that is found in the urine of people with diabetes. Second, the chemicals they needed to use were inherently unstable, so they had to find a way to keep them from reacting to light, temperature and air.
The first problem was easily solved with the use of a recently developed enzyme that reacted only to glucose. To stabilize the chemicals, the Frees experimented with rubber cement, potato starch, varnish, plaster of Paris and egg albumin before settling on gelatin, which appeared to work best.
With her husband, Ms. Free wrote two books on urinalysis. Later in her career she returned to school, earning a master’s in clinical laboratory management from Central Michigan University in 1978 at age 55. She held several patents and published more than 200 scientific papers.
At Miles, she rose to director of clinical laboratory reagents and later to director of marketing services in the research division before retiring in 1982; by then the company 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 role in developing the dip-and-read test.
Miles Laboratories followed the introduction of the dip-and-read glucose test with a host of other tests designed to detect proteins, blood and other indicators of metabolic, kidney and liver disorders. “They sure went hog wild on diagnostics, and that’s all Al’s fault,” Ms. Free said in the commemorative booklet. “He was the one who pushed diagnostics.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Several years after the introduction of the dip-and-read test, Miles moved Ms. Free to another division, citing an anti-nepotism policy. But two years later, after a change in management, she was transferred back to her husband’s division.
“They realized that breaking up a team like this was interfering with productivity in the lab,” Ms. Free said.
Alex Traub contributed reporting.