Dip-and-Read Strips

Helen (Murray) Free was born in Pittsburgh in 1923. When she was six, her mother died from a flu epidemic. She was inspired by her high school English teacher and hoped to become a teacher of English as well. When World War II began, the drafting of men created an opportunity to study chemistry which she looked at as a true opportunity she would have otherwise been denied.

When Helen graduated her career interests were to do chemical research, but she accepted a position with Miles Laboratories in quality control work. The turning point in her career came when a research position opened up in a research group at Miles headed by Alfred Free. She and Alfred later married and became lifetime research partners.

One of the first projects that Helen and Alfred worked on was the use of a tablet for assessing the glucose levels of diabetic patients. The tablet was to become an alternative for slower and more expensive lab tests. The Frees developed the tablet so it would be more sensitive. The result of their work was so successful that diabetic patients could perform the tests in their own homes.

The success of the test for diabetes then led to the detection of other medical issues such as Hepatitis-A. The tablets were a first-of-a-kind medical breakthrough. But the Frees had an improvement they wanted to develop that would make the tablets obsolete.

They created strips, which could be dipped into a urine sample to measure glucose levels for diabetes. These were called dip-and-read strips. With the success of the diabetic strip, they then developed strips for other medical indicators. The most common one was a pregnancy test. Again, they made a medical breakthrough. But they weren’t through. They developed a strip that could do multiple tests on one strip.

Beginnings often arise from asking how an existing practice can be improved. The Frees built a career by taking one advance and using it as the beginning for another advance. Beginnings often are based upon the belief that improvement is never-ending.

After retirement, Helen Frees became an advocate for science education for female and underprivileged students. In effect, she was launching the beginnings for human potential.

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“Headlines, in a way, are what mislead you because bad news is a headline, and gradual improvement is not.” – Bill Gates

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