His discovery saved millions, yet he was never paid a single cent.
Thus sums up the sad story of Abelardo Aguilar, the Filipino physician who helped discover erythromycin and made his employer filthy rich yet was never duly compensated nor recognized for his efforts.
A doctor from Iloilo, Aguilar worked for the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Company as a researcher. Then in 1949, he submitted samples of his work to the company’s research team who in 1952 declared the discovery of a new kind of antibiotic.
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According to the team, the new drug was capable of treating several kinds of infections minus the common side-effects of antibiotics. What’s more, the drug was available to those who were allergic to penicillin.
Generically named erythromycin, the company christened it Ilosone (it was also called Ilotycin) to commemorate its origin in Iloilo and marketed it under that name worldwide. As can be expected, Eli Lilly and Company raked in billions of dollars.
As for Aguilar, he was initially promised by his district manager a trip to the company’s manufacturing plant in Indianapolis where he would be recognized for his work. But with the manager’s resignation, the trip never transpired; even his personal letter to the company president telling him of the promise fell on deaf ears later on.
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After leaving the company, Aguilar set up his own clinic in Iloilo where he gained the reputation of being a pro-poor doctor. During this time, he also tried in vain to get recognition and compensation from his former company.
Unfortunately, Aguilar never saw a single centavo as he died a poor man in September 1993. Shortly before his death, he again wrote the company stating his request for $500 million in royalties so he could set up a foundation which would provide accessible health services to poor Filipinos. As before, his letter was rejected.
Even after Senator Juan Flavier’s personal follow-ups and the barrage of criticism it received from local media, Eli Lilly stuck to its guns and said Aguilar’s contract under the company barred any royalties or compensation “for that work beyond his or her salary and benefits” when he was still their employee.
As a final controversy, a letter detailing the company’s alleged discriminatory practices was also handed to the Aguilar family. The letter, written anonymously by someone who claimed to be a former employee of the company, accused Eli Lilly of discriminating against non-white employees and allegedly forcing Aguilar to resign from the company before he found out his discovery was worth billions.
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Hibionada, F. Remembering the battle of Dr. Abelardo Aguilar: Cure for millions, deprived of millions.The News Today. Retrieved 22 September 2015, from http://goo.gl/a4Cws2
Son, J. (1994). Who Really Discovered Erythromycin ?. Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency. Retrieved 22 September 2015, from http://goo.gl/RxRms1
Wermuth, C. (2011). The Practice of Medicinal Chemistry (p. 21). Academic Press.
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