As an heiress, Ruth E. Lilly could have lived a very comfortable life doing anything she wanted or absolutely nothing at all. Instead, she decided to fund a wide variety of causes and help those in need. And over the course of her nine decades on this planet, she gave away more than half a billion dollars to educational and cultural organizations.
Born in Indianapolis, Lilly was the last surviving great-grandchild of Col. Eli Lilly, who founded the pharmaceutical empire Eli Lilly and Company in 1876. Last year, the company employed over 40,000 workers, earned $21 billion in sales and was ranked #570 on the Forbes 2000 List.
Lilly was still in her teens when she began writing poetry, but it took her nearly 50 years to submit her work, under a pseudonym, to Poetry magazine. Although the influential literary journal rejected her poems, the editors also sent handwritten notes offering critiques of her writing. This left quite an impression on Lilly, and in 1986, she bequeathed $100 million to the magazine. The gift ensured that Poetry would continue publishing in perpetuity. In response, Poetry became a non-profit organization known as the Poetry Foundation, launched the annual Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which gives $100,000 to a contemporary poet in honor of a lifetime of a achievement, and created five Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships for aspiring poets.
“Poetry has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly,” said Poetry Foundation President John Barr. “Her historic gift is notable not only for its size — that part of her largesse is known to every corner of the poetry world — but also because it was made with no conditions or restrictions of any kind as to how it should be used for the benefit of poetry. In that, it was the purest expression of her love for the art that meant so much to her as poet herself, and as benefactor.”
Lilly’s quiet generosity also extended to many Indiana-based institutions. She bequeathed a major gift to the Lilly Endowment, the family’s main charitable organization. In 1966, Lilly and her brother, J.K. Lilly III, donated the site of their parents’ estate to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and provided a trust income to maintain it. A health education center, a learning center, a fitness center, a law library and a science library all exist and bear the Ruth Lilly name, thanks to her monetary contributions. Lilly rarely attended ceremonial events, though, preferring instead to have her chauffeur drive her past the institutions she had aided.
In private, Lilly struggled with day to day life. Depression plagued her for decades, and she spent much of her 40-year marriage to writer Guernsey Van Riper in a hospital. The couple divorced in 1981; they had no children. That same year, Lilly’s brother went to court and had her declared incompetent. From that point on, all of her donations had to be signed by an attorney.
Lilly finally found some relief from her illness in 1988, thanks to the invention of Prozac, which was made and distributed by Eli Lilly and Co. The anti-depressant allowed her to live the final years of her life in relative peace. For her many years of philanthropy, Lilly was awarded a doctor of humane letters degree from Wabash College in 1991, from Franklin College in 2003 and from Marian University and Indiana University in 2004.
Lilly died on Dec. 30 of heart failure. She was 94.