Experience Eli Lilly’s Humble Beginnings at Indiana Historical Society

If you haven’t been to an Indiana Historical Society “You Are There” exhibit, you need to rethink some things. They are always artfully done and make for an incredibly engaging way to learn history.

The new “Eli Lilly at the Beginning” experience is no different. I visited the facility in November for a “Getting to Know” feature in BizVoice (stay tuned for the January/February 2017 edition). Actor Mark McNees was quite knowledgeable, both in and out of character as Col. Lilly, and helped me see Lilly in a way I hadn’t before. Like many central Indiana natives, I’ve always heard about the company and its impact on the pharmaceutical industry — and its dedication to philanthropy — but I was admittedly ignorant about its founder and his humble beginnings. This experience allows visitors to interact with not only Lilly, but his first employees (he only had three) and his son, J.K.

He developed his lab in 1876 in what is the heart of today’s downtown Indianapolis. But the industry climate was quite treacherous.

“In the papers, they called Indiana the dumping ground for bad pharmaceuticals,” McNees explained. “So they were what we call patent medicines – not patents like Lilly would have today – patents were like snake oils. So anybody could say ‘I came up with this hair elixir’ and all you needed to advertise in the paper was a testimonial.

“A lot of times they would go to a family member, who’d say, ‘I tried Uncle Joe’s hair tonic and I grew hair,’” he adds. “So they would sell it through wagons or stores. There was zero regulation at the time. Also, people were making medicines incorrectly and often killing people. We dealt with things like belladonna (deadly night shade), opium, strychnine, things like that.”

McNees relayed that Lilly grew his business largely because of his reputation for quality and consistency.

For more on the experience, which is scheduled to run until January 2018, visit the IHS web site.