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Elkhart chemist given nation's highest honor

An Elkhart chemist is being awarded the U.S. government's highest honor for inventors and engineers for her ground-breaking innovation in the field of diabetes treatment. Dr. Helen M. Free, one of three recipients of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, will be recognized by President Obama in November.
Posted on Oct. 17, 2010 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on Oct. 17, 2010 at 10:22 a.m.

ELKHART -- An Elkhart chemist is being awarded the U.S. government's highest honor for inventors and engineers for her ground-breaking innovation in the field of diabetes treatment.

Dr. Helen M. Free, one of three recipients of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, will be recognized by President Obama in November.

"I'm amazed," said Free, who got a phone call from Richard Maulsby of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office several days ago telling her about the award. "I'm still on cloud nine."

In 1956, Free and her husband, Alfred, developed the first dip-and-read diagnostic test -- later called Clinistix -- for diabetics to monitor their body's glucose levels in Miles Laboratory.

The invention was named a National Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society at a ceremony in May.

According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website, the national medal recognizes "those who have made lasting contributions to America's competitiveness, standard of living, and quality of life ... and to recognize those who have made substantial contributions to strengthening the Nation's technological workforce."

Free's invention was not the only breakthrough accomplishment of her life.

As a female student at Ohio's College of Wooster in the 1940s, Free was a rarity in the field of chemistry.

"In the 1940s, women could be secretaries, nurses or teachers," Free said. "As a matter of fact, I was counting on being a Latin and English major and becoming a teacher."

After the Pearl Harbor attacks, Free said many male students either joined the military or were drafted. The school then turned to the women to fill in the vacancies.

Free had received high grades in chemistry class and was encouraged to change her major.

After graduating in 1944, she was hired by Dr. Alfred Free of Miles to start a biochemistry research lab.

"By golly, he hired me, and two years later, I married the boss," she said. "That was pretty knowledgeable on my part."

The Frees worked as a scientific team for 53 years until Alfred died in 2000. Helen remembers those years as being "wonderful."

"I knew as a youngster that I was a kid of some pretty important people," said Eric Free, one of Alfred and Helen's six children. "They would take us all over the world. We did some incredible sightseeing at incredible places because they were being listened to by people all over the world."

Eric remembers the children being "living lab rats" for their parents' studies.

"There are not many families where you can open the fridge and see milk, lemonade and ice tea on one shelf and a rack of urine samples on the shelf above," he said with a laugh.

After decades of being surrounded by scientific accomplishment, the Frees must now face an even more daunting task: determining which of the six children and three stepchildren get to fill the three guests seats designated to Helen for the White House ceremony.

Free said she's leaving that up to the children to figure out.

"The only thing I am sure of is that President Obama will hand me a medal," she said. "And that is pretty spectacular."

"Spectacular" may sum up the entire career of a woman who wasn't even initially focused on the then-male-dominated science path.

"I was a nerd," she said. "I got good grades. It's amazing. It's serendipity."




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