The Story of Modern Medicine: 1876-2016

Today’s guest blog comes from M Jarrell, Lilly’s historian and archivist. It marks the latest in a series of Lilly heritage stories we’re sharing in this year of our 140th anniversary as a company.

May 10, 2016, was a huge day for Eli Lilly and Company. The day provided Lilly leadership and personnel with an opportunity to celebrate weathering 140 years of storms. In that time, Lilly has witnessed numerous wars and military conflicts—including two world wars, a Great Depression, many other smaller depressions and recessions, external attempts to involve Lilly in trusts, patent cliffs, increased regulatory oversight and scrutiny over marketing practices and pricing.

Today’s world is certainly a vastly different place than it was when Colonel Eli Lilly opened his four-person firm in 1876. The craft of medicine was advancing quickly during the last quarter of the 19th century and first quarter of the 20th. As late as 1880 miasma theory was still competing for scientists’ attention with the germ theory of disease, and it wasn’t until 1882 that Robert Koch discovered the causal relationship between the tubercle bacillus and tuberculosis.

Lilly was a lot like every other pharmaceutical company until 1923 when it became a part of something much larger than itself. With the exception of some painkillers, vaccines and a few odds and ends, Lilly didn’t sell much that would be considered a “modern medicine” today. In fact, J.K. Lilly, Sr., the company’s president at the time, understood fully what the introduction of Iletin (Lilly’s name for insulin) meant to the company. It meant Lilly would no longer sell root extracts and patent medicines.

The launch of insulin on October 15, 1923, afforded Lilly a measure of institutional gravitas that cannot be overstated. In an instant, Lilly was a name to be recognized and respected the world over. As a result of this historical moment, Lilly was able to divest itself of centuries of folk remedies designed to treat symptoms rather than the root causes of disease.

The company responded to its own success by doing what it has done ever since. It invested in itself in the form of research. By 1934, the company had a state-of-the-art research and development facility on its campus, and by 1964 it was launching the world’s first cephalosporin, a class of antibiotics, from its research efforts. 

As we move forward in time, it’s essential to note this: The story of Lilly is the story of modern medicine. The company has literally witnessed the development of a professional endeavor to cure diseases, lessen suffering and make life better for the people of the world. I’m so proud to take part in this history.