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The Civil War and Science Shape Eli Lilly and Company’s Early History

Eli Lilly was only 16-years-old and a recent graduate of the class of 1854 at what is now DePauw University when he began a pharmacist apprenticeship in Lafayette, Indiana. In 1861, the Civil War would interrupt his career, until then spent working in various drugstores around the region. Joining the Union Army, Lilly rose to the rank of colonel before he turned 27, leading artillery forces until he was taken prisoner by the Confederacy.

Witnessing fellow officers die in an Alabama prisoner of war camp gave Lilly a firsthand view of the ravages of 19th-century disease that he undoubtedly carried with him for the rest of his life.

Original Eli Lilly & Co. Building, 1876

The original Eli Lilly & Co. building, opened in 1876

At a time when unreliable and often dangerous “cure-all” products were sold to an unsuspecting public, Lilly wanted to produce reliable, high-quality medicines. He set out to create a line of medical products specifically for physicians to use in treating their patients. He opened Eli Lilly and Company in an 18-by-40-foot, two-story building in Indianapolis on May 10, 1876.

In 1886, he hired full-time scientists chemist Ernest Eberhardt and botanist Walter Evans to research new products. His company would continue to devote a sizable portion of its operation to scientific research, spending more than $5 billion a year on research and development by 2016.

Insulin, Innovation Spur Lilly’s 20th Century Growth

Even though Lilly died in 1898, his Civil War experiences and focus on science in developing new drugs would continue to shape his company’s culture through the 20th century. Eli Lilly and Company would also become an innovator in new and breakthrough drug technology, allowing it to become one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Did You Know

Lilly developed the first commercially produced insulin in 1923, which helped them thrive during the great depression.

In 1923, when diabetes was nearly always fatal and had no adequate treatment, Lilly worked with the University of Toronto to develop the first commercially produced insulin, which the company branded as Iletin. Derived from animal insulin, J.J.R. McLeod and Frederick Banting, the Scottish and Canadian researchers who developed Iletin, received the 1923 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work.

Two Lilly scientists, George Minot and William Murphy, working alongside William Whipple of the University of Rochester, would win a Nobel Prize in 1934 for their development of drugs during the 1920s to treat pernicious anemia, a blood and kidney disorder.

As the country weathered the Great Depression, Lilly kept its workers on the job and increased sales to $13 million in 1932. In 1934, it opened its first international subsidiary in the UK.

During the First World War, Lilly had partnered with the American Red Cross to create the Lilly Field hospital, treating troops of all nationalities for two years in France. During the Second World War, the company produced medicines carried by American troops in flight and field kits. In early 1944, the company became the first to mass produce penicillin, leading Lilly into the field of infectious disease prevention even as the antibiotic was rushed to allied battlefields in Europe and across the Pacific.

By 1950, the company had grown to more than 5,500 employees with sales reaching $159 million.

In 1955, Lilly became the first pharmaceutical company to manufacture and distribute the Salk Polio Vaccine. The company expanded into cancer treatment in 1961, developing and marketing Velban (vinblastine), a chemotherapy drug used to treat several types of cancer. By the mid-1970s, Lilly topped $1 billion in sales for the first time, with 23,000 employees spread across 39 international subsidiaries or divisions.

Eli Lilly & Co. headquarters

Eli Lilly & Co. headquarters in Indianapolis, IN

In 1982, the company released the diabetes drug Humulin. Lilly used recombinant DNA technology for the first time to produce a medicine for humans. Humulin is an insulin identical to that produced in the human body.

Lilly Redefines and Dominates Psychiatric Drug Market

Approved in 1987, Prozac (fluoxetine HCl) may be Lilly’s most famous drug. It was also one of the company’s most successful. The medicine to treat clinical depression accounted for $2 billion in sales in 1994 – almost a third of the company’s total revenue that year.

The antidepressant was the first in a class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI). SSRIs target a single chemical in the brain, serotonin. Prior to Prozac, antidepressants targeted several brain chemicals.

Prozac was not only a new way to treat major depression; the drug also became a pop culture touchstone and helped Americans perceive mental health care in a more positive light.

Lilly followed Prozac with Zyprexa (olanzapine) to treat schizophrenia in 1996 and Cymbalta (duloxetine hydrochloride) to treat major depressive disorder in 2004.

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