Pharmacy giant’s first steps

Eli Lilly entered his first pharmaceutical business collaboration in Paris


Many men came out of the Civil War broke and not knowing what they were going to do with the rest of their lives. Some lost all they had in the war and had to start all over. Others attempted to start a new profession that was completely opposite of what they did before the war. One such man, Eli Lilly, attempted to change his career path but found himself returning to his previous life.

Gustavus and Esther Lilly were graced with the first of their 11 children July 8, 1838. Born in Baltimore, Md., Eli Lilly did not remember living there as his parents moved to Kentucky while he was still quite young. The family stayed in Kentucky until 1852 when they moved again and settled in Greencastle, Ind. Here the Lilly’s enrolled their son in Indiana Asbury College – now known as DePauw University.

Eli Lilly attended classes between 1852 and 1854. His love for pharmaceuticals came at the early age of 16. Lilly visited Harry Lawrence’s Good Samaritan Drug Store at Lafayette, Ind., in 1854, and watched Lawrence prepare pharmaceutical drugs. Lilly went on to complete a four-year apprenticeship with Lawrence. After receiving his certificate, Lilly bounced from drugstore to drugstore until landing back in Greencastle in 1860 at Jerome Allen’s Drugstore and married the daughter of another Greencastle merchant.

With the breakout of the Civil War, Lilly enlisted in the 21st Indiana Infantry. He was commissioned a second lieutenant but resigned his commision in December 1861, just a month after the birth of his son. He formed an artillery unit after returning to Greencastle.

The 18th Battery, Light Field Artillery came to life with Lilly recruiting his friends, merchants and farmers. Lilly was commissioned as a captain, and the unit mustered at Camp Morton in Indianapolis. Lilly was elected to serve as commanding officer of his unit from 1862 until 1863 when his enlistment was up. He re-enlisted with the 8th Indiana Cavalry and was promoted to major. He finished out the war with this unit and was brevetted lieutenant colonel for his service.

Returning to civilian life after the war, Lilly tried running a cotton plantation in Mississippi where family members were stricken with a mosquito-borne disease, probably malaria, that was common of the time. His wife, Emily, was pregnant with their second son when she succumbed to the disease and the child was stillborn at her death.

His wife’s death devastated him so much he left the plantation. Drought caused a crop failure and the plantation fell into disrepair. Lilly returned to Indiana. In 1867, he found work with a wholesale drug company called Harrison Daily and Company. He went switched to another wholesale company before making yet another big move.

Leaving his son in the care of family members, Lilly set off. He arrived in Paris in 1869 and went into business with James W. Binford. Together they opened the Binford Lilly Red Front Drug Store.

Lilly married Maria Cynthia Sloan in November 1869 and brought his son from his first marriage to Paris. The Red Front Drug Store was a profitable business, but Lilly was more interested in the manufacturing of medicine than running a drug store.

He started devising a plan to open his own medicinal manufacturing business. In 1873, Lilly left the partnership in Paris and moved to Indianapolis where he started his drug manufacturing business that eventually became the world renowned Eli Lilly Company.

The walk of life people choose can vary day to day. Some can stop on a dime and change directions with ease. However, some are put on this Earth to do one thing and to do it very well.

Eli Lilly started out in the manufacturing of medicine and although he tried to change his career he was unable to stay away. With a short little stop in Paris, Lilly put his mark on Paris and it will never be forgotten. The Binford Lilly Red Front Drug Store is still talked about today and has ephemera and other antiques that are highly sought after.