A history of… Eli Lilly & Co

This month we look into the history of Eli Lilly and Company, which has a heritage of over 135 years and a strong commitment to developing and discovering new drugs in the areas of diabetes, neuroscience, cardiovascular diseases and oncology.

For over 135 years, Eli Lilly and Company has committed itself to discovering and developing innovative medicines to help realise their “vision to make a significant contribution to humanity by improving global health in the 21st century“.

Today, Eli Lilly and Company employs approximately 38,000 people worldwide, with over 7,600 employees in eight different countries engaged in research and development. The company is split into five core business areas:

• Lilly bio-medicines

• Lilly diabetes

• Lilly Oncology

• Emerging markets

• Elanco Animal Health

But before we go into Lilly today, let’s find out more about the company’s heritage.

The founding of Lilly

On May 10th 1876, in Indianapolis in the American state of Indiana, Colonel Eli Lilly founded the global research-based company, Lilly Pharmaceuticals. Colonel Lilly was 38 years old, a pharmaceutical chemist and a veteran of the US Civil War. According to the history of the company, Colonel Lilly was “frustrated by the poorly prepared, often ineffective medicines of his day” and promised himself that he would:

• “Found a company that manufactured pharmaceutical products of the highest possible quality”

• “Develop only medicines that would be dispensed at the suggestion of physicians rather than by eloquent sideshow hucksters”

• And that his company “would be based on the best science of the day

In 1886, Colonel Lilly hired a young chemist to be a full-time scientist, to help him on his quest to find new and improved techniques for quality evaluation of his products. Together, they laid the foundation for the Lilly tradition, which is a dedication to first concentrate on the quality of existing products and later expand to include the discovery and development of new and better pharmaceuticals.

“Colonel Lilly was “frustrated by the poorly prepared, often ineffective medicines of his day”…”


In the 1920s, Lilly researchers collaborated with Canadian medical scientist, Frederick Banting, and American-Canaidan medical scientist, Charles Best. Banting and Best, of the University of Toronto, are the co-discoverers of insulin. They worked with Lilly to isolate and purify insulin for the treatment of diabetes, which at the time was a fatal disease that had no effective treatment options. The work they did together resulted in the world’s first commercially available insulin product, Iletin, in 1923.

Also in the 1920s, Lilly initiated a research program to find a treatment for a life-threatening blood disorder called pernicious anemia. Together with two researchers from Harvard University, Lilly introduced a liver-extract product that served as a standard of therapy for decades. The two Harvard researchers went on to share a Nobel Prize for the discovery of liver therapy against anemias.

By 1926, fifty years after it was founded, Lilly sales had reached US $9 million and the company had produced over 2,800 different products. Despite the economic challenges that came with the Great Depression, Lilly’s sales rose to $13 million in 1932. That same year, Colonel Lilly’s eldest grandson, Eli Lilly, was named as the president to succeed his father, Josiah K. Lilly Sr.

The next milestones for Lilly came over the next few decades. Lilly was one of the first companies to develop a mass-produce penicillin in the 1940s. Then, in the 1950s, the company introduced two new antibiotics; vanocomycin and erythromycin. By the 1960s, Lilly had launched the first of a long line of oral and injectable antibiotics in a new class called cephalosporins. A new member of the cephalosporin family was launched in the 70s and was called Ceclor, which eventually became the world’s top-selling oral antibiotic.

The Eli Lilly and Company foundation was established in 1968 as a separate, tax-exempt private charitable foundation, which is funded through Lilly’s corporate profits. The Foundation is committed to:

• “Improving the lives of people who lack the resources to obtain quality healthcare, with a primary focus on low and middle-income countries”

• “Strengthening public education in the United States, with an emphasis on science and math education”

The most significant breakthrough in diabetes care since the 1920s was Lilly’s 1982 introduction of Humulin, insulin identical to that produced by the human body. Humulin is the world’s first human-healthcare product created using recombinant DNA technology. Lilly later applied this technology to the introduction of Humatrope, which is a new therapy for growth hormone deficiency in children.

The first major introduction in a new class of treatments for clinical depression also happened in the 1980s when Prozac (fluoxetine) was introduced to the market.

“The most significant breakthrough in diabetes care since the 1920s was Lilly’s 1982 introduction of Humulin…”


Achievements in the 90s included the development of many innovative new products. These included Gemzar, for the treatment of pancreatic and non-small-cell lung cancer, schizophrenia drug Zyprexa, fast-acting insulin product Humalog, and Evista, the first in a new class of drugs to be used for the prevention and treatment of postmenopausal osteoporosis.

This momentum has kept up through the 2000s. In 2002, Cialis, a medication to treat male erectile dysfunction, was approved for marketing in the European Union shortly followed by a launch in the US two years later. Forteo, a first-in-class medicine for osteoporosis patients to stimulate new bone formation, was also approved. As was Strattera, a nonstimulant, noncontrolled medication to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. In 2004, the first and only FDA-approved medication to treat bipolar depression, Symbyax, was launched in the US.

The Lilly tradition of concentrating on the quality of existing products first before developing new treatments is apparent during these years;

• Symbyax was also approved as a new treatment for major depressive disorder and diabetic peripheral neuropathic pain

• Gemzar also received an expanded approval in the US in 2006, as a treatment for women living with recurrent ovarian cancer

• Evista’s approval expanded to also reduce the risk of invasive breast cancer in two populations of postmenopausal women

In January 2011, Lilly and Boehringer Ingelheim announced a global agreement for the joint development and marketing of new products for diabetes therapy. One product developed through this alliance is Tradjenta (linagliptin), which is a prescription medication used, along with diet and exercise, to lower blood sugar in adults with type 2 diabetes. The alliance also recently launched an educational digital game for type 2 diabetes patients called Complications Combat.

Lilly in 2013 and beyond

It’s fair to say this tradition is expected to continue, as according to Lilly’s Medicine Development responsibility, the company “seek[s] to develop pharmaceuticals that are “first-in-class” (i.e., creating a treatment where none existed) and/or “best-in-class” (i.e., improving on existing treatments).”

“Over the years, Lilly has been recognised for its commitment to help and improve the lives of others…”

Today, Lilly largely concentrates on the therapeutic areas in which it has expertise: diabetes, neuroscience, cardiovascular diseases and oncology. In 2012, Lilly’s full-year financial results reported net sales of $22, 603 million, with dividends paid per share at $1.96. The research and development expenditure for 2012 was $5,279 million a year, which is an increase of 5% to 2011.

Over the years, Lilly has been recognised for its commitment to help and improve the lives of others, as well as its staff commitment to diversity and inclusion. For three years in a row, Lilly has been named in DiversityInc’s “Top 50 Companies for Diversity” list, which recognizes corporate diversity best practices. It’s also been named in National Association for Female Executives’ “Top Companies for Executive Women”, the Latino 100 and the Hispanic Network Magazine’s Top Pharmaceutical and Biotech Companies, Best of the Best list, to name a few.

The current CEO and President, John C Lechleiter, has served the company since April 1st 2008.

Don’t miss Eli Lilly and Company’s pharmaphorum article each month. Here are some of the most recent articles:

• Connecting hearts abroad – first person account

Partnerships and progress on counterfeit medicines

Biopharma’s battle against NCDs in developing countries






The next ‘A history of…’ article can be viewed here.




About the author:

Hannah joined pharmaphorum in early 2012, after graduating with a degree in Magazine Journalism & Feature Writing in 2011, and leads our news coverage, in addition to liaising with new and existing feature authors. With over three years’ experience working within the journalism industry alongside university, Hannah has written for a number of different print and online publications, within the women’s lifestyle, travel and celebrity sectors. Now focussed on the pharma sector with her role at pharmaphorum, Hannah is embracing the challenges of working within a fast growing media organisation in this rapidly changing industry sector.

For any queries or contribution suggestions, please contact her here or via Twitter @Hannah_Blake2.

What milestones will Lilly reach in the next decade?