Remembering the battle of Dr. Abelardo Aguilar:
Cure for millions, deprived of millions
He helped saved lives of millions following his discovery of what is now to be officially recognized as among the significant medical breakthroughs in history. The year was 1952. The drug an antibiotic called “Erythromycin,” the alternative for penicillin-allergic patients. The man was Dr. Abelardo B. Aguilar, an Ilonggo physician and then medical representative of American-firm, Eli Lilly and Company.
Assigned by said company with code number 12559, Dr. Aguilar's discovery was among the thousands of soil samples sent for testing. A memorandum dated June 28, 1952 sent by John H. Blair, then Far East District Manager to all Eli Lilly medical service representatives announced the results of the “source of a new antibiotic.”
“Preliminary tests and clinical trials establishes this antibiotic to be as effective as penicillin-like products without allergic manifestation and gastro-intestinal side-effects common to some other anti-biotics,” the memorandum entitled “Now it can be told” wrote. “Oral administration is effective in one hour and the drug is detectable in the bloodstream for eight hours.”
Today, millions more continue to benefit from said discovery – treatment of bacterial infections, respiratory tract infections like pneumonia, urinary tract infection, ear and skin infections, gonorrhea, syphilis, rheumatic fever, whooping cough and diptheria - as billions poured in to said company.
To date, Eli Lilly ranks as among the 100 Best Companies to work for in America (Fortune Magazine), the 15 th of 500 companies in the United States designated as the most innovative user of technology and as such, a top-ranked pharmaceutical company.
Dr. Aguilar's work has, in fact, become an integral part of the company's history as written in its official web site where following the erythromycin discovery, its Tippecanoe Laboratories started up operations in May 10, 1954.
Of late, the company has now expanded its operations – research and development factories in 9 countries, manufacturing sites in 19 nations and market of its products in 158 countries. Translated into number of employees, Eli Lilly holds the distinction as among the leaders in corporate governance with over 41,000 personnel on record.
Dr. Aguilar's employ as among the medical representatives dates back in October 1, 1948 with the islands of Panay and Negros as his ‘areas of territory.' Following the company memorandum, he got a letter from Blair dated July 2, 1952 that recognized his effort.
“Your associates from the Philippines and around the world I am sure, are appreciative of the importance of your submitting the soil sample responsible for the development of Ilotycin (Eryhromycin, Lilly),” Blair wrote. “The importance of this discovery is evidenced by the construction of the huge antibiotic Tippecanoe Laboratory representing expenditure of millions of dollars in anticipation of increased volume of sales. Numerous other as yet invisible improvements and changes are also in process. In the end of these changes will be the people that will be benefited by the curative properties of this new product. Your country will be publicized as being the source of the discovery.”
Four years later in September 16, 1956, Dr. Aguilar wrote to Eugene Beesley, Eli Lilly President formally introducing himself stating “I am proud to inform you that for eight years now, I have been faithfully and loyally working with Eli Lilly International Corporation as a Medical Representative assigned in Western Visayas, Republic of the Philippines.” Dr. Aguilar then went ahead to state how he was the same medical representative responsible for erythromycin discovery and how Blair promised him to work for “some form of recognition like a trip to Indianapolis and see for myself the vastness and greatness of the Lilly manufacturing plant.”
However with Blair's resignation came the undelivered promise.
“A leave of absence is all I ask as I do not wish to severe my connection with a great company which has given me wonderful breaks in life,” Dr. Aguilar added. The leave of absence nor the trip was never granted.
In the years that ensued, Dr. Aguilar pursued his profession in the medical field until his decision to leave Eli Lilly and the start of his private practice back in Iloilo City. He was to be known as the “doctor of the poor” having consistently displayed compassion to his patients most of whom unable to pay.
For years he tried albeit in vain to seek compensation from Eli Lilly that even up to his death bed, he left word to his only daughter, Maria Elena Aguilar-Paguntalan to continue his fight for a well-deserved recognition and compensation.
Dr. Aguilar then wrote months prior to his death in September of 1993, “I feel I am justified to be given a royalty because without using my scientific knowledge and sacrifices, the Eli Lilly Co. would not have been able to manufacture this antibiotic. I sincerely would like to ask for a $500,000,000.00 royalty from Eli Lilly Co. which I will put into a good cause like helping my poor and sickly Filipino countrymen which are by the thousands. I will put a foundation for them.”
Like his request for a leave of absence and trip to the Eli Lilly laboratories, Dr. Aguilar's wishes were again not to be granted.
In 1994, hopes were rekindled for the daughter of Dr. Aguilar when the national media took interest in the matter. Numerous exchanges were then made to and from the Office of then Senator Juan Flavier and Paguntalan that showed personal follow-ups to the office of Eli Lilly. Journalist Bobby Timonera of the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) came up with series of articles alongside the column of Conrado de Quiros entitled “Greed.”
“Abelardo Aguilar discovered erythromycin. He died a poor man,” De Quiros then began in his column (PDI, November 10, 1994) where he went on to discuss the ills brought by the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR).
“In fact, the only thing the IPR's defenders have been able to say about it is that it sanctions God's law against stealing. True. But who's stealing? The IPR will not reward Filipinos with millions of dollars, it will deprive them of millions of dollars,” he added “That is not God's law. That is greed.”
The PDI articles eventually prompted a response from Filipino officials of Eli Lilly and in December 1, 1995, Dr. Aguilar's daughter got this response from John North, Director of Eli Lilly's International Corporate Affairs.
An “unusual compensation request,” North labeled Paguntalan's follow-up of her father's wishes as he further went on to write, “no company employee involved with research and development of any compound, regardless of where they are employed in our global organization receives royalties or compensation for that work beyond his or her salary and benefits. This policy was in effect during the time your father was an employee of our company and it is still in effect today.”
But former Eli Lilly employees tell a different story. In a letter received by the family August of 1996, inside information was relayed of how Dr. Aguilar was allegedly forced to resign by the company district manager “or get fired for various reasons.”
“This move perhaps could have been an understanding with the main office in Indianapolis to get rid of your dad before your dad gets any wiser. I know because I worked with Lilly for nine years and I witness this sad resignation of your dad,” the letter went adding how sad as well that instead of getting promoted to medical director, Dr. Aguilar was only made a detailman.
And the company allegedly discriminates against colored people, the letter went on to state citing how a black sales supervisor was not made sales manager with the post given to a mestizo, “an outsider who never sold a Lilly pill in his life.”
Integrity. Excellence. Respect. Eli Lilly lives with these “long-established guiding principles,” as so stated in their company profile. The core values that guides them toward better corporate governance.
Integrity equaled with honesty in their dealings. Excellence in the company's pursuit of pharmaceutical investments. And respect for the people “maintaining an environment based on mutual respect.”
Core values that to this day Dr. Aguilar's daughter lives on as well hoping that in every pill of erythromycin that brings cure to the sick, her father gains the kind of recognition he failed to secure in his lifetime.
As so distinctly included in the official web site of the Philippine Government's Department of Tourism trivia and “things to know” about the country, Dr. Aguilar holds the 20 th trivia spot out of the 90 stated – the Filipino scientist who has earned American drug giant Eli Lilly billions of dollars “neither Aguilar nor the Philippine government earned a royalty.”