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Helen M. Free

  • Born: February 20, 1923, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0176
Interview Date: December 14, 1998
Location: Elkhart, Indiana
Interviewer: James J. Bohning
No. of pages: 55
Sponsor: American Chemical Society
American Chemical Society

  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 recieved her B.S. 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.


1944 B.S., Chemistry, The College of Wooster
1978 M.A., Management, Central Michigan University

  Professional Experience

Miles Laboratories, Inc.

1944 - 1946 Control Chemist

Miles Laboratories, Inc.

1946 - 1959 Research Chemist, Biochemistry Section

Miles-Ames Research Laboratory

1959 - 1964 Associate Research Biochemistry and Group Leader

Ames Research Laboratory

1964 - 1966 Ames Product Development Laboratory

Ames Research Laboratory

1966 - 1969 Ames Technical Services

Ames Research Laboratory

1969 - 1974 New Products Manager, Chemical, Medical or Clinical Test Systems

Ames Growth and Development

1974 - 1976 Manager, Microbiological Test Systems

Ames Growth and Development

1976 - 1978 Director, Specialty Test Systems, Ames Company

Ames Growth and Development

1978 - 1979 Director Clinical Laboratory Reagents, Research Products Division

Ames Growth and Development

1979 - 1982 Director, Marketing Services

Indiana University at South Bend

1977 Adjunct Faculty

Miles, Inc./Bayer Diagnostics

1982 Professional Relations Consultant


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

Title and Description Page

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 is professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he was 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 has 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 the foundation’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. He is currently a visiting research scientist and CESAR Fellow at Lehigh University. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.

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