Eli Lilly transformed a sleepy family business into a pharmaceutical powerhouse, proving along the way that economic pragmatism and generosity are often complementary. Eli’s namesake grandfather—called “Colonel Lilly” for his Civil War service—founded the family drug-making business in Indianapolis in 1876. Lilly’s father followed in the business, starting as a bottle washer. After graduation from the Indianapolis public schools, grandson Eli was sent to pharmacy school in Philadelphia to learn the trade. All his life, Lilly would regret that he never received a fuller liberal education.
But Lilly grew the company in ways his father and grandfather never imagined. A practitioner of the scientific management techniques of Frederick W. Taylor, Lilly was named head of the company’s newly created Economics Division. Lilly brought in industrial specialists to cut costs and increase production. Even more crucially, he moved the company away from its roots as a patent-medicines manufacturer and toward advanced pharmaceutical research.
In the 1920s, this new focus paid off when Lilly & Co. played a crucial role in the development of insulin for the treatment of diabetes. Lilly went on to equally instrumental roles in creating the polio vaccine and mass-producing penicillin, liver extract, and thimerosal, a preservative in medicines and vaccines. He retired as head of the company in 1948, but remained closely involved in its affairs until his death in 1977.
Lilly believed that it was the duty of the wealthy to support charitable causes. He brought to his many philanthropic efforts the same drive and attention to detail that made him successful in the drug business. But he also brought some pronounced personal passions.
The Lilly Endowment is notable for its support of community-service organizations in Indiana, and its unusual portfolio of religious giving.
Despite having assured financial success, thanks to the development of the insulin patents, Lilly was an unhappy man as he entered middle age. Never a warm person—one of his closest friends, the president of Wabash College in Indiana, noted that Lilly used his dry sense of humor and business acumen to keep people at arm’s length—Eli could be harsh and short-tempered. He was burdened with personal troubles: two sons died in infancy; his first marriage ended in divorce; and his daughter Evie suffered from mental instability and alcoholism throughout her life.
In 1927, Lilly remarried, though, and he and his wife Ruth were a much happier couple. They stayed together until her death in 1973. A markedly more buoyant Lilly then set out, as he wrote in a 1934 essay, “to broaden and brighten [my] life and surroundings.” The mid-life turn started with a deliberate course of self-education, in areas that were never broached in pharmacy school. Lilly became a learned autodidact in fields ranging from archaeology and historic preservation to Chinese art and comparative religion.
He began to publish books and monographs on topics of interest, making small but real contributions to various fields. Typical topics included “Prehistoric Antiquities of Indiana” and “Walum Olum or Red Score,” an interpretation of Lenape Indian pictographs. One of his personal heroes was Heinrich Schliemann, the amateur archaeologist who bested the “smug professionals,” as Lilly put it in his article “Schliemann in Indianapolis,” by discovering the site of ancient Troy in western Turkey.
These pronounced intellectual interests and personal enthusiasms would guide Lilly’s personal giving. Like his grandfather and father before him, he supported historical and educational institutions in Indiana—like the liberal-arts institutions Earlham College and Wabash College, and the Indiana Historical Society. He was also a generous benefactor of Christ Church in Indianapolis, where he had been a choir boy as a child and where he attended services his entire life. He donated his extensive Chinese art collection to a local museum. Children’s causes were especially dear to his wife Ruth, and Lilly supported a local children’s museum and private religious groups that ministered to poor and needy children.
Unlike his father and grandfather, though, Lilly turned his philanthropy into a systematic activity. He had a keen eye for what we would today call “venture philanthropy”—a phrase that likely would have appealed to the man who once wrote a detailed manual for Lilly employees on the best way to fill gelatin capsules. Philanthropy, he told his daughter, “sounds easy, but the catch is that it takes lots of time and study to know what objects of that nature are worthwhile and what are not.”
Usually working anonymously, Lilly would seek out small organizations that seemed to be doing good work and could benefit from his giving. He was especially interested in character education, finding and supporting the work of Ernest Ligon, author of the popular mid-century character-education curriculum for religious schools called “A Greater Generation.” With Lilly’s support, Ligon founded the Character Research Project at Union College in upstate New York. Over more than a quarter century, Lilly supported Ligon’s work conducting research, writing articles, and convening youth congresses to study and advocate for character education.
In 1937, along with his father and brother, Eli founded the Lilly Endowment, comprised of Lilly stock and closely controlled by the Lilly family. It is still one of the largest philanthropies in the country. The Lilly Endowment is notable for its support of community-service organizations in Indiana, and its unusual portfolio of religious giving, including support for scholars working on religious topics and financial aid to divinity and theology students. (For more information on Lilly’s continuing work in support of religious communities, see “Placing the Call,” Philanthropy, Spring 2010.)
Because he frequently made anonymous donations, it will never be possible to know the full extent of Eli Lilly’s philanthropy. When he died in 1977, however, he left an estate worth more than $165 million, which was distributed to his and Ruth’s favorite causes, including Wabash College, historical and religious institutions throughout Indiana, and community services groups in the city of Indianapolis. Modest to the end, Lilly particularly requested that there be no eulogy at his funeral. So his bequests spoke for his life.
- E. J. Kahn, All in a Century: The First Hundred Years of Eli Lilly & Co. (Eli Lilly, 1976)
- James Madison, Eli Lilly: A Life, 1885–1977 (Indiana Historical Society, 1989)