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The legacy of Eli Lilly

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Eli Lilly, American soldier, industrialist, entrepreneur and pharmaceutical chemist, was responsible for the first medicine-containing gelatin capsules and fruit-flavoured liquid medicines

Source: Images from Wikimedia Commons

Eli Lilly, American soldier, industrialist, entrepreneur and pharmaceutical chemist, was responsible for the first medicine-containing gelatin capsules and fruit-flavoured liquid medicines. He was also behind the formation of the US Food and Drug Administration, and pioneered the concept of prescriptions.

The pharmaceutical manufacturing company that Eli Lilly set up in 1876 distinguished itself by having a permanent research staff, superior mass production techniques, and a strong focus on quality. After his death, Lilly’s sons and grandsons continued to expand the family business to become one of the biggest drug companies in the world, responsible for pioneering and developing insulin in the 1920s and the mass production of penicillin during the 1940s.

Lilly began his pharmaceutical career in 1854 when he was an apprentice chemist and pharmacist at the Good Samaritan Drug Store in Lafayette, Louisiana. He later enrolled in a pharmacology course at Indiana Asbury University, graduating after two years, and opened his own Indianapolis drugstore in 1861.

He enlisted in the Union Army at the start of the Civil War in 1861, rising to the rank of Major of Cavalry, before being captured and spending the final year of the war in a prisoner of war camp. After a failed attempt at running a cotton plantation in Mississippi that resulted in bankruptcy, Lilly ran a succession of different drugstores with different partners. But he was more interested in pharmaceutical manufacturing than running a pharmacy and in 1876, using capital generated from the drugstores, he opened his own laboratory.

This manufacturing venture began with three employees, including his 14-year-old son Josiah. Following his experience with low quality medicines during the Civil War, Lilly was committed to producing only high quality prescription drugs, in contrast to the often ineffective patent medicines of the time. One of his first products, quinine, quickly became his bestselling. By the late 1880s, Eli Lilly & Co had over 100 employees.

Lilly advocated federal regulation of the pharmaceutical industry and his suggested reforms were enacted in law in 1906, leading to the creation of the US Food and Drug Administration. He was among the pioneers of the concept of prescriptions and helped initiate the common practice of only giving addictive or potentially dangerous medicines to people who had seen a physician first.

Josiah was sent to the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy in 1880 and ten years later was running the business — a role that he continued to perform successfully for several decades. By the time of his partial retirement, Lilly was a millionaire and devoted much of his time to philanthropy. Josiah and his two sons continued this philanthropic practice and, in 1998, the Lilly Endowment was the largest philanthropic endowment in the world.

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