A Heartfelt Congratulations to Helen M. Free
Last week President Obama awarded Helen M. Free with a National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the highest honor that the U.S. government can bestow on an American scientist, for “her seminal contributions to diagnostic chemistry, primarily through dip-and-read urinalysis tests, that first enabled diabetics to monitor their blood glucose levels on their own.”
We were fortunate enough to interview Helen a little over 10 years ago, shortly after her term as president of the American Chemical Society (ACS) and also shortly after the ACS created the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach to acknowledge both her long commitment to educating women and underprivileged students and her goal of raising public awareness about the instrumental role that chemistry has played, and still plays, in our everyday lives.
Reading through her oral history, one can readily see that Helen, like many scientists, achieved much of her success through hard work and a determination to succeed in a field she entered primarily in response to America’s involvement in World War II (she originally planned to major in English and the classics). Though we often tend to assume that significant advances in science come from those who were “born scientists,” it is clear that Helen’s love of the pursuit of knowledge was central to her excellence and, consequently, to her receipt of the National Medal.
We at CHF send Helen our most heartfelt congratulations for the honor she has received and for the contributions she has made to help us preserve and understand what makes a scientist a scientist. While our research is still ongoing, her oral history helps us and other historians and social scientists better understand the ways in which people pursue and live the scientific life, and the ways in which gender has played an important role for women in science.