When my plane landed at the Akron-Canton airport in Ohio this past October, I was thinking about urine. True, I drank two cups of coffee before the hour-long flight from New York City. But I was thinking about urine because during the trip I read an Associated Press article about industry attempts to create synthetic urine. The idea of artificially making something that exists naturally in an endless stream might appear to be as silly as, oh, I don't know, cloning sheep. But there is actually a role for synthetic urine as a standard for calibrating equipment used in urine tests. Yes, there's a market for faux pee. Little did I know that the next day I would meet a woman who made her mark with the real thing.
I was in Akron to attend the Collegiate Inventors Competition awards ceremony at the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Numerous members of that institution also showed up. And that's how I met chemist Helen Free, a hall of famer, former president of the American Chemical Society and a monarch of micturition: Free is affectionately known as the Pee Queen. Helen and her late husband, colleague and fellow hall of famer Alfred Free invented the strips of paper that can simply be dipped in a urine sample and then matched against a color code to indicate the levels of various substances. (Coincidentally, a few miles from the Inventors Hall of Fame is the Pro Football Hall of Fame, another institution whose members are intimately acquainted with urine testing.)
In the early 1950s, Helen told me, she and Alfred worked together in the diagnostics division at Miles Laboratories in Elkhart, Ind. With diabetes then, as now, one of the country's major health problems, the Frees were trying to come up with an easy way for diabetics to test for glucose in urine at home. They had the idea of permeating paper with several chemicals that were sensitive to the presence of glucose.
A few drops of urine on the paper would cause a color change if the urine contained any glucose. "And then," Helen remembers, "Al, bless his heart, said, 'What would happen if you impregnated the reagents in the paper and then just dipped it in the urine, like a litmus test?' And that became Clinistix, the first dip-and-read test of any kind." Dip-and-read strips have since been developed that test urine for numerous other medically important compounds.
During the research phase of their easy glucose test, the Frees reversed the usual tradition of reminding children to flush. Their six kids were put to work as a urine production facility. And all that valuable urine needed to be stored. Helen says a caveat in the Free household thus was, "Beware of anything yellow in the refrigerator. It may not be Mountain Dew."
Always active in science education, Helen Free was once demonstrating dip-and-read strips to a group of other people's children when she discovered that a scientist can never assume anything as a given. The particular test was for occult blood. "These little kids, with their noses right about at the same height as the demonstration table, stopped by and said, 'What ya got?' And we were telling them that this urine has blood and that one doesn't, and you dip the strips and see which one turns blue. And at the end we said, 'Do you have any questions?' And one of them said, 'Yeah. What's urine?'"
There are no stupid questions, though, which gives me the courage to modify an old axiom to ask: Would I rather have a Free bottle in front of me than a prefrontal lobotomy?
This article was originally published with the title Number One.