Brain illness kills wife and unborn child of Colonel Eli Lilly

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Vicksburg, Mississippi, August 22, 1866:  Emily Lilly, the wife of former Union Army Colonel Eli Lilly, 28, who has the Bowling Green Plantation 10 miles east of Port Gibson, died suddenly, Monday, at her home from what her doctor calls “congestion of the brain.” She was eight months pregnant, so the child was lost, too.

Colonel Eli Lily (right), his son, Josiah (left) and grandson, Eli (center) circa 1898

Her doctor said he did everything he could to save both the mother and her unborn boy but to no avail. The entire family has had bouts with malaria for the past several weeks. Colonel Lilly and his 5-year-old son, Josie (Josiah), are totally grief stricken but have recovered from the malaria.

This tragic and untimely death of Mrs. Lilly is just the latest in a series of misfortunes to befall the Lilly family over the past year since they settled in Mississippi from Indiana.

Colonel Lilly says it is difficult to believe that he moved onto the Bowling Green Plantation a scant 14 months ago in June 1865. While stationed in Vicksburg at the close of the War, the Colonel thought the area along the Mississippi River was so beautiful and inviting that he decided to stay after the War to build a life for himself and his family.

Since that decision was made, though, he has experienced one devastating disaster after another. The Colonel planted cotton on his 1400 acre plantation earlier this year. But, our current drought hit. His entire cotton crop was ruined. Then, his business partner, Ceasar Beasley, stole all of his business funds and disappeared into this post- Civil War confusion. This summer, malaria struck his entire family. And, now, the death of his wife.

Total personal destruction right on the heels of him witnessing the death and bloodiness of the Civil War. All Colonel Lilly wanted to do was to build toward a bright future in Mississippi and to forget the dark past of war. What he has gotten, though, is enough to test the patience of Job.

Colonel Lilly is working through some extremely difficult decisions, right now. Will he stay on the plantation and make a life in Mississippi? Or, will he return to Indiana?

He and his young son buried his wife on the plantation, yesterday, in a simple ceremony attended only by a few friends.


The monumental setbacks in Mississippi proved too much for Eli Lilly to bear. He returned to Indiana with his five year old son in the latter part of 1866, bankrupt and despondent and without a means of livelihood. He left Josie with his grandparents in Greencastle, Indiana, and headed for Indianapolis to find a job. He had been trained as a pharmacist prior to the Civil War.

In early 1867, he found work as a chemist with a local wholesale drug house for $40 per month. Then, for the next decade, Eli Lilly worked as a chemist, partnered in a drug store, went bankrupt again, and worked a variety of drug related jobs. All with disappointing results. Everything Lilly touched seemed to turn to mud, not gold.

Eli Lilly and his son, Josiah, shown on right side of doorway of his first pharmaceutical plant, Circa 1876

But, finally, on the advice of a friend, on March 10, 1876, the oft bankrupt 38 year old chemist opened a little drug shop, measuring 18 feet wide and 40 feet deep at 15 West Pearl St. in Indianapolis. It was probably the smallest pharmaceutical plant in the United States at the time. He had three employees, including his now 14 year old son, Josie. They made a little over $4,000 ($83,000 today) in sales their first year in business.

Needless to say, from those inauspicious beginnings and after so many heartaches and failures in his life, Eli Lilly finally began to realize the American dream. He married again, and rose to be a leader of U.S. industry and one of America’s greatest philanthropists. Lilly’s pharmaceutical innovations are far too numerous to mention here, but he was the first to put gelatin-coating on pills and capsules, and, as you might imagine, one of the first drugs he produced was quinine, used to treat malaria at the time.

His company—the Eli Lilly Company—has now grown to be a global corporation and is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of pharmaceuticals for people, as well as animal health products.  Today, the Eli Lilly Company is a $17 billion dollar corporation. Mud can be turned in to gold, after all.

Colonel Lilly died of cancer in 1898 at age 59. So, at age 37, Josiah inherited the company and continued to operate it exactly as his father did for the next quarter of a century before he retired in 1922. Josie died in 1948 at age 86.

Even though the Lilly family’s Mississippi experience was obviously a dark time in their lives, for those of us in the South, a portion of Eli Lilly’s life is now, and forever will be, a part of all our Mississippi Medical Memories.

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