American Pharmacists Month: Eli Lilly (1885-1977)

Special Note: During the Month of October, American Pharmacists Month, we will be highlighting historical and present pharmacy figures who have contributed significantly during the profession.

Contributed by: Christelle Ngatchou, P2, Class of 2018

Eli Lilly was the 3rd successor to the most popular pharmaceutical company of the 20th century. Named after his grandfather – Colonel Eli Lilly, he established a new approach that carried the industry to its best potential.


Colonel Eli Lilly was a very important man of the late nineteenth-century in Indianapolis and a veteran of the Civil war. He was also an experienced pharmaceutical chemist working in the drug business in Lafayette and Greencastle, Indiana. His ideals were to bring new techniques for a better quality of research, evaluation, and production of medications. In May 1876, he founded in Indianapolis on 15th West Pearl Street the first laboratory “Eli Lilly and Company.” He gathered more and more people to follow his ideology by forming the Commercial Club in 1890. This organization purpose was to improve the well being of the city.  The industry manufactured different products used in pharmaceuticals. In fact, his company was one of the first companies to introduce a bona fide pharmaceutical research by hiring pharmaceutical chemists.  After the Colonel Eli Lilly’s death in 1898, his son Josiah K. Lilly continued the work in the development of new drugs.

Eli Lilly was a pharmaceutical chemist who graduated from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy in 1907.  Lilly was also a Citizen of Indianapolis, a philanthropist, and a major business leader. He transformed the “Eli Lilly and Company” from just a laboratory to also a major pharmaceutical manufacturer. By following his father and grandfather’s steps, he fostered pharmaceutical research by working with Canadian scientists in 1923. The company discovered and produced “Iletin,” the first insulin product available. In addition, in 1930, the Eli Lilly and Company by working with Harvard University researchers, received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of liver therapy against anemia.

When Fleming introduced penicillin in the late 1920s and the first penicillin was given to a person in the 1940s, there was a need for a mass production. Thus in 1940s, the Eli Lilly and Company was the first to produce antibiotic medications in large quantities. Thus, the company was characterized as the “Pill factory.” Later, more antibiotics were discovered and manufactured. And, in the 1950s, Cancomycin was produced for patients presenting hospital related bacterial infections. And, erythromycin was developed for patients presenting allergies to the first antibiotic Penicillin. By the 1960s, the company developed the most popular and first-line oral injectable antibiotics.

In 1982, the company was the first in using the recombinant DNA technology that lead to produce the world’s first human care product for diabetes – the insulin “Humilin”. Additionally, “Zyprexa” the world’s top selling medication for schizophrenia was developed in 1990s.  And most recently, in 2004 “Symbrax” was produced as the first and only product approved by the FDA for treatment of bipolar depression in the US.

It is very clear that “Eli Lilly and Company” has played major roles in development of medications in the US. Thanks to it’s founders and to Eli Lilly himself, medicines are reaching larger numbers of patients and promoting positive health outcomes.


  • O. Stafford (1966). The Growth of American Pharmaceutical Biology: The biologist in the Pharmaceutical Industry. BioScience 16 (10): 672-679.
  • James H. Madison (1989). “Oh, Mama, I Smell the Business!” The Growing Up Years of Eli Lilly, 1885-1907. Pharmacy in History 31 (4): 160-172.
  • James H. Madison (1991). Eli Lilly 1885-1977 Book Reviews. Indiana Magazine of History 87 (3): 279-282.


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