Stories: 1984

The House That Humulin Built

In early 2011, LSF visited Dr. Irving S. Johnson, former Vice-President of the Eli Lilly Research Laboratories, at his home on Sanibel Island, Florida, to record an oral history focused on his work in biotechnology. Now eighty-five years of age, Dr. Johnson is widely recognized as a pioneer in the field.

Trained as a developmental biologist at the University of Kansas, Dr. Johnson was hired to Eli Lilly and Company in 1953, the year of Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule. Johnson’s initial goal was to conduct cancer research under the tutelage of legendary Lilly research managers George H.A. Clowes and Clyde W. Culbertson. However, he soon began to follow progress in molecular biology, including the remarkable series of breakthroughs that culminated in the invention of recombinant DNA techniques by Cohen and Boyer in 1973.

Irving Johnson

By then, Dr. Johnson had been promoted to Vice-President of Research. He recognized immediately the significance of Cohen and Boyer’s technology for Eli Lilly and Company’s insulin business – as it offered a means for producing pharmaceutical grade human insulin in the lab.

He initiated collaborative work that teamed Eli Lilly and Company with leading biochemists and molecular biologists at Genentech, City of Hope National Medical Center, and the University of California, San Francisco. The objective was to synthesize the gene that codes for insulin. In 1982, Eli Lilly and Company’s Humulin®, a recombinant version of human insulin, was introduced – the world’s first bioengineered drug.

Dr. Johnson believes that his contributions to science, industry, and medicine derived from his capacity to “think prospectively,” to sense the direction of technological winds. Following the insulin project, he encouraged Eli Lilly and Company to invest substantially in molecular biology, and worked beyond the boundaries of the firm to create conditions conducive to innovation and progress in the field. He forged cooperative ties between Lilly and molecular biologists in universities and cutting-edge biotech firms, championed the safety of experimentation with recombinant DNA in public debates on regulatory policies, and gave testimony before the U.S. Congress on the vast potential of genetic engineering to improve the human condition.

On October 22, 1984, at 247 East Merrill Street in Indianapolis, Mayor William H. Hudnut, III stood together with Richard W. Wood, Chairman of Eli Lilly and Company’s Board of Directors, to dedicate a new 300,000 sq. ft. research facility on the Lilly campus, Building 98. With pride, Johnson calls it “The House that Humulin Built.” Much of the space within Building 98 is devoted to investigations in molecular biology, genetics, and immunology.


Building 98 at Eli Lilly & Company - 'The House that Humulin Built'
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