Free to Pee: Helen Free’s Role in Revolutionizing Medical Testing through Urine Test Strips

By Ella Talley

Have you ever heard the term “peeing on a stick?” Often, this phrase is used in reference to the required procedure for many types of drug and pregnancy tests. However, before urine testing was adapted for these purposes, it was first developed as a way of measuring glucose for diabetes. Helen M. Free, along with her husband Alfred, were pivotal in the creation of a sensitive test that could determine the level of glucose in diabetes patients using a simple “dip and read” test stick. They revolutionized how medical analysis could be conducted in the comfort of our own home, as well as how results could be drawn more efficiently in hospital settings. Mrs. Free not only aided in this revolutionary invention, but also served as a role model for other female chemists, becoming president of the American Chemical Society and making contributions in both science education and outreach.

Helen M. Free, born in 1923, came from humble beginnings, raised by a single working father after her mother’s death when she was young. Originally majoring in Latin and English in college, she soon switched to chemistry, a predominately male field despite the declining male workforce during World War II. After graduating, she accepted a job in quality control at Miles Laboratories (now part of Bayer) located in Elkhart, IN, whose main consumer product was Alka-Selzer’s tablets. While quality control was not her passion, she soon had the opportunity to join Alfred Free and his biochemistry research group, where she thrived. Within a couple of years, the two were married, becoming lifelong partners in their lab’s revolutionary research.

Before the invention of the Frees’ dip and read test stick, there was the tablet. The Free lab first produced a tablet that would change color according to the glucose amount found in dilute urine. With further calls for a more convenient and more sensitive test, the dipstick was born. It was a urine test strip that would turn a specific color upon the detection of a particular substance—in Free’s case, glucose. The Frees not only tested their strip with various biological indicators of other diseases, but they also developed the ability to include more than one test on a single strip. This invention radically changed how medical testing could be conducted—both in a hospital setting and, for the first time, at home.

Free and her husband continued their research until 1982, when they both retired. Even after retirement, Mrs. Free contributed tirelessly to both consultant work and various roles in the American Chemical Society (ACS). She became chair of the National Chemistry Week task force, raised public awareness in the field of chemistry, and served as the third elected female president of the ACS in 1993. Today, she is established as one of the most highly regarded chemists, with two published books, multiple ACS awards, and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Next time you take any sort of at-home test, whether it a urine test or even a COVID-19 nasal swab, remember that an extraordinary woman by the name Helen M. Free gave you that freedom—to conduct medical testing quickly and conveniently from the comfort of your own home.