From Ilonggo Soil to Medicine Cabinets: The Untold Story of Erythromycin

Written by Gabby Alindogan

Illustrated by Kieffer Abarro

Repetitive routines and endless responsibilities are the stuff of everyday life. These seemingly insignificant moments often blend into the background, leaving little room for recognition or celebration. Yet, buried deep within the mundanity of life are stories of triumph, innovation, and injustice–particularly starting from a small town in Iloilo. This is the untold story of Abelardo Aguilar, a Filipino scientist, whose discovery of erythromycin, an antibiotic that has saved countless lives, was never properly credited by the pharmaceutical company he worked for.

Humble beginnings

Abelardo Aguilar was born in 1911 in the small town of Barotac Nuevo, Iloilo. Growing up in a modest family, he was inspired by his pharmacist father to pursue a career in medicine. After completing his studies at the University of Santo Tomas, he landed a job as a research assistant at Eli Lily’s laboratory in Manila in 1949.1

Aguilar’s perseverance and passion for medicine were evident in his work at Eli Lily’s laboratory. He dedicated himself to research and development, and his contributions in the field of medicine soon caught the attention of his colleagues.

It was here that Aguilar’s remarkable journey began.

From the ground up

At the time, Eli Lily was searching for a new antibiotic that could combat bacterial infections. The discovery of antibiotics like penicillin and streptomycin had already revolutionized medicine, but these drugs were becoming less effective due to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.2

Aguilar was tasked with screening soil samples from various parts of the Philippines in the hopes of finding a new antibiotic. After months of hard work, he stumbled upon a strain of bacteria, identified as Saccharopolyspora erythraea, found in soil in his backyard that produced a compound with potent antibacterial properties. He sent his findings to Dr. Woodward at Harvard University, who confirmed the effectiveness of the substance and named it erythromycin, after the color of the colonies of the bacteria.3

Erythromycin was then found to be a game-changer. It was effective against a wide range of bacterial infections and had few side effects. Its discovery was hailed as a major breakthrough, and Eli Lily was quick to capitalize on Aguilar’s discovery. They rushed to commercialize the drug, which became a huge success, earning the company millions of dollars.

Taken for granted 

Despite Aguilar’s significant contribution to the discovery of erythromycin, he was never given proper credit for his work. The patent for the antibiotic was awarded to Eli Lilly and Company and Aguilar’s name was left off the patent and subsequent publications.

This erasure of Aguilar’s contribution was not an isolated incident. Throughout history, people of color have often been denied recognition for their achievements, with their contributions appropriated or credited to others. In the case of Aguilar, it was a clear case of racism and exploitation.

A trip to the company’s production factory in Indianapolis was allegedly promised to Aguilar, but it was never accomplished. In a letter to the company’s president, Aguilar wrote: “A leave of absence is all I ask as I do not wish to sever my connection with a great company which has given me wonderful breaks in life.” This request was also denied.4

However, despite the injustice he faced, Aguilar never lost his passion for science. He continued to work at Eli Lily until his retirement in 1977, where he made further contributions to the field of antibiotics. Yet, his discovery still remains uncredited.

Your everyday medicine

As this was during the early 1940s, the world was at war and the demand for antibiotics was high. People touted the antibiotic as the “miracle drug” during a time of need. This impact can be seen in statistics. According to the World Health Organization, before the discovery of erythromycin, respiratory infections were the leading cause of death in children under the age of five. After its discovery, the number of deaths has dropped down significantly.5

Even in the current world, this discovery is still a popular macrolide antibiotic found in our everyday medical necessities that has been widely used to treat a range of bacterial infections, including respiratory tract infections, skin infections, and sexually transmitted infections. It works by inhibiting bacterial protein synthesis, thereby preventing the growth and spread of bacterial cells.6

The importance of erythromycin in everyday life cannot be overstated, as it has played a vital role in treating and preventing bacterial infections for millions of people worldwide. Its continued use and development will be essential in the fight against bacterial infections, both now and in the future.7

Honoring Aguilar

For years, Aguilar’s contribution went unrecognized. His name was forgotten, and his achievement was credited to others. It was only after Aguilar’s retirement, that the truth about the discovery of erythromycin began to emerge.

The story of Abelardo Aguilar reminds us to not overlook the stories that come with our everyday necessities and give honor and justice to those who were shafted, showing us that plagiarism is also an everyday problem that affects individuals across various fields, including academia, journalism, and creative industries. Despite his groundbreaking work, he died a poor man, highlighting the pervasive issue of economic exploitation and the undercompensation of marginalized individuals in scientific and other fields. Aguilar’s story serves as a reminder that justice and equity extend beyond recognition and must include fair compensation and support for individuals who have been wronged.

Today, continuous efforts from around the country are working to honor Abelardo Aguilar’s legacy. The town of Barotac Nuevo has erected a monument in his honor, and various organizations have campaigned for Eli Lily to acknowledge his contribution officially.

However, the fight for recognition is not just about one man’s legacy. It is about the broader struggle for justice and recognition for marginalized communities. It is about acknowledging the contributions of people who have been historically overlooked and undervalued. Although science continues to be one of society’s greatest driving forces, events like these can discourage future generations of aspiring scientists from pursuing scientific research. 

It is important to recognize the achievements of individuals who have contributed significantly to the scientific community. Their hard work and dedication have propelled the field forward, inspiring and helping others as they go through their everyday lives.


[1] B H. Dr. Aguilar’s antibiotic discovery in the Philippines. Canadian Multicultural Inventors Museum. 2020 Oct 9 [accessed 2023 Feb 23]. 

[2] Aminov RI. A brief history of the antibiotic era: Lessons learned and challenges for the future. Frontiers in microbiology. 2010 Dec 8 [accessed 2023 Feb 24].

[3] Pesheva E. A cinematic approach to drug resistance. Harvard Gazette. 2016 Sep 8 [accessed 2023 Feb 24].

[4] Erythromycin. Wikiwand. [accessed 2023 Feb 24].

[5] Revised who classification and treatment of childhood pneumonia at … World Health Organization. [accessed 2023 Feb 24].

[6] Erythromycin. Uses, Interactions, Mechanism of Action | DrugBank Online. [accessed 2023 Feb 23]. 

[7] Farzam K. Erythromycin – statpearls – NCBI bookshelf. National Library of Medicine. 2022 Jul 16 [accessed 2023 Feb 23]. 


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