Oral history interview with Helen Murray Free

Oral history interview with Helen Murray Free

  • 1998-Dec-14
Photograph of Helen Murray Free

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 received her BS 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.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 55 pages
  • 02:45:00
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Rights holder
  • Science History Institute
Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute

About the Interviewer

James J. Bohning was professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he had been 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 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 CHF’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. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.  Bohning passed away in September 2011.

Physical location

Oral history number 0176

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Interviewee biographical information

  • February 20, 1923
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States
  • May 01, 2021
  • Elkhart, Indiana, United States


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1944 College of Wooster BS Chemistry
1978 Central Michigan University MA Management

Professional Experience

Miles Laboratories, Inc

  • 1944 to 1946 Control Chemist
  • 1946 to 1959 Research Chemist, Biochemistry Section, Miles-Ames Research Laboratory
  • 1959 to 1964 Associate Research Biochemistry and Group Leader, Ames Research Laboratory
  • 1964 to 1966 Ames Product Development Laboratory
  • 1966 to 1969 Ames Technical Services
  • 1969 to 1974 New Products Manager, Chemical, Medical or Clinical Test Systems, Ames Growth and Development
  • 1974 to 1976 Manager, Microbiological Test Systems
  • 1976 to 1978 Director, Specialty Test Systems, Ames Company
  • 1978 to 1979 Director Clinical Laboratory Reagents, Research Products Division
  • 1979 to 1982 Director, Marketing Services
  • 1982 Bayer Diagnostics, Professional Relations Consultant

Indiana University South Bend

  • 1977 Adjunct Faculty


Year(s) Award
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

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The published version of the transcript may diverge from the interview audio due to edits to the transcript made by staff of the Center for Oral History, often at the request of the interviewee, during the transcript review process.

Complete Interview Audio File Web-quality download

6 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads