Ruth Lilly


Honorary Degree (2004)
Doctor of Humane Letters
Location: Indianapolis
Presenter: Adam William Herbert
IUPUI Spirit of Philanthropy Award (1991)


Filtered through lush greenery, daylight is softer in the Ruth Lilly Shade Garden. The pathways are cool and quiet, with a delicate darkness that promises a kind of sanctuary unavailable in the other festive bowers of the Indianapolis White River Gardens. The garden is perhaps a fitting metaphor for Ruth Lilly herself: a lifelong philanthropist who has flourished in the background while providing others with dazzling gifts of enlightenment.

Lilly's contributions to academics, culture, and the social health of Indiana are uniquely quantifiable, yet incalculable. In her lifetime, she has given more than $700 million to worthy organizations across the nation. It is a large number, but it cannot begin to express the effect Lilly has had as a philanthropist. Through her giving, Lilly has assisted patients she has never met and taught hundreds of students she has never shared a classroom with. "While few at the university have met Miss Lilly face to face, through bold philanthropic strokes she has been a powerful influence in promoting and encouraging critical thinking and scholarship," says D. Craig Brater, School of Medicine dean and Walter J. Daly Professor. "Some show their support of a university through volunteerism, others through the written word or oratory ability. Miss Lilly works quietly behind the scenes to let others shine."

Lilly's family has a long history of shared prosperity in Indiana. Born to Josiah and Ruth Lilly in 1915, she grew to share her family's deep appreciation for the arts and sciences. She attended Tudor Hall in Indianapolis, quietly pursued her own interest in poetry, and learned the family tradition of judicious generosity along the way. Always, Lilly's widely ranging interests are reflected in the organizations she supports, and her gifts are rarely impersonal- her parents' home was one of her earliest donations, given to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The city's performing and visual arts have consistently received her patronage, while national organizations such as Americans for the Arts have earned substantial endowments over the years. In 2002, Lilly captured headlines with a $100 million gift to the Poetry Foundation and the foundation's influential journal, Poetry.

An unwavering concern for community has led to the funding of numerous social service projects; through the Salvation Army, United Way, American Red Cross, Noble of Indiana, and others, Lilly has erected buildings, supported programs, and established centers of new hope. Because of Lilly's unselfish interests, "small organizations have been given the chance to get started, medium organizations an opportunity to achieve greater stability, and larger ones to grow into national prominence," says Richard Wood, chairman emeritus of Eli Lilly and Company. The National Easter Seal Society honored Lilly's contributions, naming her U.S. Philanthropist of the Year in 1998.

But perhaps Lilly's most significant gifts have nurtured higher education. Lilly's support of more than a half-dozen Indiana colleges and universities has enabled individuals and entities to flourish as they could not have done without her. That is especially true at Indiana University. Fifty years ago, Lilly watched her father give his carefully procured collection of rare books and manuscripts to IU- creating the renowned Lilly Library on the IU Bloomington campus and making what many antiquarians consider the largest, most valuable donation ever made to an American university.

Since then, Lilly's contributions have continued to change the face of Indiana University. The IU School of Medicine's Ruth Lilly Medical Library draws thousands of scholars yearly, while her $1.5 million scholarship program attracts medical students of the highest caliber. In addition, the School of Law-Indianapolis, Herron School of Art, Center on Philanthropy, and Bloomington libraries have all felt Lilly's touch. Taking up the reins of her family's philanthropy has been a consuming commitment for Lilly. Her mailbox is never empty- each day brings another charity's request, another plea for funding or influence. For generations now, in her gentle way, Ruth Lilly has fostered enormous advances, and these advances will continue for generations to come.