Following in Colonel Eli Lilly’s Footsteps:
A Legacy of Civic Engagement
By Bart Peterson
Good corporate citizenship is deeply ingrained at Eli Lilly and Company—and has been from the very start. You could say it’s in our DNA. It’s the essence of who we are.
Lilly’s commitment to the community dates back more than 139 years to our founder, Colonel Eli Lilly, and the humble beginnings of the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical company that proudly bears his name.
With just $1,400 in assets and three employees—including his 14-year-old son—Colonel Lilly founded our company on May 10, 1876, in a small brick building on an alley in downtown Indianapolis.
These were not easy times for Colonel Lilly and his family. After serving with distinction in the Civil War, he faced a series of business failures and the tragic deaths of his first wife and a daughter.
Yet he had a vision for his new business: to produce and deliver medicines made with the utmost quality and safety, based on scientific expertise and prescribed by physicians. At the time, so-called proprietors of medicine were busy selling magic elixirs and other phony cures.
Before long, word of this new, ethical drug company spread and business grew. By 1881, Lilly’s sales had reached $66,000, and the business was incorporated with five shareholders.
Today, Eli Lilly and Company is a great American success story, serving millions of patients around the world. We provide medicines in 120 countries, employ about 41,000 people, have major research and development facilities in six countries, and conduct clinical trials in more than 50.
A fierce desire to serve
But that’s only part of the story. Right alongside Colonel Lilly’s business ambitions were his firmly held social and charitable goals. He had a fierce desire to serve the Indianapolis community where he and his employees lived and worked.
This is how he put it: “I approach this subject with a most profound sense of obligation… we may not realize it now, but we are building one of the great inland cities of the American continent. Shall we build it broad and deep and strong, or shall we temporize with make-shifts?”
The answer was clear: build it broad and strong. Here are just a few examples of Colonel Lilly’s civic engagement:
He chaired the local relief committee, which helped rebuild lives after the Depression of 1893 and during crises such as floods and fires. During World War I, this assistance group offered aid to widows and orphans. This group was a forerunner of the United Way of Central Indiana.
As founder and the first president of the Commercial Club of Indianapolis, he worked to improve the city’s infrastructure. That included paving streets, building sewers, and helping to organize the city’s earliest water and gas companies. That club later became the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce.
He helped elevate our cultural and educational resources, including funding the local symphony and serving as an early director of the University of Indianapolis.
As an admirer put it, Colonel Lilly was “the public spirit of Indianapolis personified.”
One favorite story shows the lengths he would go to for others. In 1894, a flood swept the Ohio River Valley, leaving people stranded in their homes and in dire need of help. Colonel Lilly quickly chartered two steamboats to distribute food and medicines along the river starting at Madison, Indiana. The colonel went along on the trip, even personally checking buildings for stranded homeowners.
A legacy of caring
Three years later, Colonel Lilly fell ill, and on June 6, 1898, he died of stomach cancer. He was 60 years old. The Indianapolis Journal eulogized him with these words: “There are few men whose loss can so fully and truthfully be considered a loss to a community as is that of Colonel Eli Lilly. He was a man who entered into public affairs from thoroughly unselfish motives and was guided in his efforts by a sincere desire to promote the welfare” of his fellow citizens.
Colonel Lilly passed down to his son and grandsons (all future leaders of the company) the values that still guide Lilly today: integrity, excellence, and respect for people. He instilled in them a strong commitment to serve others.
When his son, J.K. Lilly, became superintendent of the company’s still-modest laboratories in 1882, Colonel Lilly told him: “Take what you find here and make it better and better.” That notion of constant improvement remains at the heart of our company’s mission and brand.
A few years later, J.K. sounded much like his father when he called for everyone to “unselfishly perform some duties as a citizen.” He further put those words to action when, in 1937, he and his sons created the Lilly Endowment. Today, that endowment has grown in size and importance to one of the largest charitable foundations in the U.S.
His name lives on
Next May 10, Eli Lilly and Company will celebrate our 140th anniversary—and our commitment to improving health, and strengthening communities through our corporate responsibility efforts, is stronger than ever. Every day, we aim to be good corporate citizens of the world through programs both large and small.
In 2014, Lilly gave more than $590 million in charitable contributions to those in need, a high percentage of which were free or reduced-price medicines.
We’re lending our hearts and hands, too. On our annual Lilly Global Day of Service—which ranks among the largest single-day volunteer events of any global enterprise—20,000 employees across the world help beautify and improve communities through projects that range from cleaning and painting to pulling weeds and planting trees to working in food pantries and developing activities for special needs students.
And through our Connecting Hearts Abroad program, 100 employees each year travel on two-week assignments, serving people in impoverished communities around the globe. They return home with insights and understanding that make them better employees, too.
Closer to home, we’re proud that our company recently pushed the envelope on community investments—making a large financial commitment to early childhood education in our headquarters city to ensure that children in Indianapolis get the best possible start in life.
In all of these ways and many more, we are striving to stay on the path set by our founder.
Tributes to his life, work, and generous spirit as a good corporate citizen are everywhere at Lilly. In fact, a replica of the building where Colonel Lilly founded our company all those years ago on West Pearl Street sits on our headquarters campus. And Heritage Hall, our museum of Lilly family and company artifacts, is a constant reminder of the obligation we have to honor and carry forth the values and integrity of Colonel Lilly.
At Lilly, we truly do stand on the shoulders of giants. It’s our privilege and our responsibility to preserve and build on that proud legacy for many years to come.
Bart Peterson is Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Communications for Eli Lilly and Company. From 2000 to 2007, he served two terms as the mayor of Indianapolis. Before joining Lilly in 2009, Bart served as managing director of Strategic Capital Partners, as a fellow with the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and as a distinguished visiting professor of public policy at Ball State University.
- 5 Questions with Governor Mike Pence
- Indiana Lt. Governor Seeks Big Ideas for
- Businesses Don’t Grow, People Do
- Dave Lindsey’s Corporate Citizenship
- A Billion + Change and Points of Light
Team Up With the Super Service
Challenge to Showcase Pro Bono Service
- Following in Colonel Eli Lilly’s Footsteps
- Joining Together to End Hunger in
- A Case Study in Global Health
- Daniel’s Story
- Indiana University Classmates … Global
- Food Security in Our Lifetime
- From The Indiana State House to the
Fields of Liberia
- George Srour
Citizens as Culture Makers
- From New Harmony to Heartland Film
- Indianapolis Foundation at 100
- CASE STUDY
- Joanna Taft
- Hunter Smith Band Story.
- United State of Indiana
- David McCullough on Teaching
- Lincoln in Indiana