On rare occasions, a flash of the forceful energy that animated Arthur M. Sackler would break through the modesty of his carefully cultivated public facade.
One such instance was the dedication ceremony for the Harvard museum that he had helped fund.
“A new millennium begins in but a decade and a half,” he declared to a crowded Sanders Theatre on Oct. 18, 1985. “After billions of years and myriads of species, a newcomer, homo sapiens, in just twoscore years, has traversed a range of global watersheds, completely reversing realities that ruled throughout the existence of our earth.”
“For the first time in four billion years wherin all species were at the mercy of the environment, that environment is now at the mercy of one species,” he continued. (He would repeat the refrain of “For the first time in four billion years” seven more times in his speech.) Standing alone at his podium, Sackler went on to assert with sweeping grandeur that scientific progress had solidified mankind’s supremacy over nature and “thwarted the inevitability of death from heart, kidney, or liver failure;” that technology had dispelled “fertility cults;” unseated religious zealotry; and advanced to the point at which it could guarantee the basic needs of all humankind in perpetuity. A new age had dawned for Arthur Sackler, and with it, limitless possibility.
If his unshaken faith in scientific progress felt misplaced at the inauguration of an art museum, none in attendance recorded their bewilderment.
Sackler, who had never attended Harvard, was relatively unknown to most at the University until the 1980s. With the exception of major donations like his gift to the Harvard Art Museums, he typically maintained a quiet public presence. While recognized among circles of art collectors, he avoided museum boards and art functions and typically declined interviews.
When the Arthur M. Sackler Museum opened its doors in October 1985, a special supplemental issue of The Crimson declared the occasion “The Miracle on Quincy Street.” The Fine Arts Department had for years been cash-strapped and space-poor, forced to convert supply closets and exhibition galleries into offices for its new faculty members. With the opening of the Sackler Museum, the department gained office spaces, classrooms, and galleries for its expansive collection of Asian and Islamic art, which had long languished in storerooms and basements.
But in the years leading up to its opening, the Sackler Museum was criticized for fundraising targets deemed too ambitious in the age of stagflation and passionately opposed by Cambridge residents. At one point, the entire project was cancelled by Harvard President Derek C. Bok. Deeming it a miracle when the museum’s doors opened in 1985 was hardly hyperbole.
Few could have anticipated, however, that the museum would again become embroiled in controversy three decades later, this time for an entirely different reason: The Sackler family’s connection with Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical company best known for producing OxyContin, a time-release painkiller widely implicated for its role in the opioid epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 47,600 people in the United States died of opioid overdoses in 2017, or on average 130 each day. Activists and academics alike have pointed to Purdue Pharma’s aggressive marketing strategies — which downplayed the addictive potential of OxyContin — as one of the epidemic’s principle drivers.
The Sacklers had for decades funded art museums, medical schools, and a myriad of other charitable endeavors. But as the opioid epidemic received more and more attention, protesters across the United States and around the world called for the Sackler name to be stripped from many of the gilded institutions it adorns — from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, to the Smithsonian in Washington, to the Louvre in Paris.
Before long, the swell reached Quincy Street. Over the past two years, demonstrators have staged several protests outside of the museum calling for the University to remove the Sackler name and refuse future donations from the family. While spearheaded by Team Sharing, a support and activism group for individuals who have lost loved ones to the opioid epidemic, the protests have attracted a diverse array of supporters, including such political figures as Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone and Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Arthur Sackler’s defenders, however, have attempted to distance him from his younger brothers Mortimer and Raymond, who co-owned Purdue Pharma. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Jillian Sackler, Arthur’s third wife, pushed back against the activists, highlighting that her husband had died nearly a decade before OxyContin came to market. After referencing “legal and contractual considerations,” University President Lawrence S. Bacow echoed similar rhetoric in defending his rejection of the protestors’ demands.
Activists fired back nonetheless, arguing that the aggressive marketing that led to the widespread distribution of OxyContin traces its roots to strategies pioneered by Arthur Sackler.
Sackler thus remains a difficult figure to pin down. His museum dedication speech highlights a contrast between the low-profile public persona he maintained while alive and the zealous energy that undergirded it — and his philanthropic and professional lives were divided in much the same way. Though the museum he funded on Quincy Street, the “miracle” that affirmed Harvard’s commitment to fine arts education, was erected to honor Arthur Sackler’s patronage of the arts during his lifetime, it has become to many a symbol of the forceful pharmaceutical advertising now implicated in thousands of overdose deaths.
When Seymour Slive was appointed as acting director of the Harvard Art Museums in 1974, he hardly expected his tenure to last.
Slive, then 56, was a fine arts professor and expert on Dutch paintings. He had had no formal experience managing a museum with a collection as large as Harvard’s, and in assuming the position, he was met with a steep learning curve. “The problems that face us are enormous: a critical shortage of space, desperately overworked and underpaid staff, continuing risks to the collection from crime and urban pollution,” he wrote in the 1974-1975 “Report of the President of Harvard College and Reports of the Departments,” a document written annually to the board of overseers. “All of these are compounded by a dearth of funds of grave proportions,” he continued.
Slive soon grew into his position: The next year, he announced a $15.5 million capital campaign that aimed to address the problems he had diagnosed.
His goals blossomed further when the University closed the Allston Burr lecture hall, made irrelevant by the construction of the new Science Center. Perhaps, Slive proposed, the structure could become a new space for the art museums.
Two years later, the director first reported the curiosity of a significant benefactor. “As this report is written, I am pleased to be able to say that a major donor has indicated an interest in underwriting a substantial portion of the costs of the new structure,” he recorded in the report for the 1977-78 academic year. Though he would remain anonymous for several years, that donor was Arthur Sackler.
In January 1979, Slive secured a $10.7 million donation from his new benefactor, the largest gift the art museums had ever received.
Sackler’s money granted him influence over Slive’s vision. “Not long after the drive began, its thrust was radically changed by the appearance on the scene of a new friend of the Fogg,” Slive wrote in a resignation letter to his colleagues in 1981. “He chooses to remain anonymous, and we of course respect his wish. I trust, however, that one day our friend, whose vision is much larger and [more] daring than ours, will allow his name to be made known.”
Sackler, Slive’s “new friend,” encouraged the director to expand his project’s scope. “He suggested: think big. Why renovate Allston Burr?” Slive recollected in his letter. “It does not begin to meet the Fogg’s needs,” he continued. “If it is razed instead of renovated and if its adjacent frame house is razed, a new, threefold larger museum can be built on this site.”
Slive destroyed all of his private correspondence with Arthur Sackler, but the two men left behind a jointly constructed legacy: the third of Harvard’s art museums, home to the University’s collection of works from Asia, the Middle East, and India.
The museum’s focus was of particular relevance to its benefactor. Sackler was an avid collector of Asian art, and he funded the construction of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum for Asian Art at the Smithsonian, even donating 1,000 works from his private collection.
As waves of ethnic studies activism swept across the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, the construction of the Sackler Museum allowed the University to exhume much of its collection of non-western art from basements and storerooms — just as it received more attention from academics. In one sign of the times, Priscilla S. Hunt, an attendee of the Sackler Museum dedication ceremony, annotated the commemorative booklet she received at the event, crossing out every instance of the word “oriental” and writing in “Asian!” along the margins as if to chide Seymour Slive, who had authored much of the pamphlet, for his outdated terminology.
In that way, the Sackler Museum helped realize the University’s goals for arts education. “There’s a huge amount of ways that [Asian, Islamic, and Indian art] contributes to the teaching at Harvard,” says Amy Brauer, current curator of the collection for the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art — the collections the Sackler Museum was built to exhibit. “We feel like we have a responsibility to present as much of a representation of global art as we can,” she continued. “It presents an incomplete picture to the public to not present those cultures — especially when you’re purporting to present world culture.”
But when asked if she had any personal qualms with Sackler’s connections to the opioid epidemic, Brauer deferred comment to the Harvard Art Museum’s public relations team.
“Dr. Arthur M. Sackler generously donated funds in 1982 that contributed to the construction of the original building that housed the Arthur M. Sackler Museum,” clarified Daron J. Manoogian, director of communications for the museums, in an emailed statement. “Dr. Sackler died in 1987, before OxyContin was developed and marketed. Given these circumstances and legal and contractual considerations, Harvard does not have plans to remove Dr. Sackler’s name from the museum.”
Even if he had held misgivings about Arthur Sackler, Seymour Slive was in no position to voice them: The museums he directed survived off of the good will of wealthy benefactors, and without donations from figures like Sackler, the museum network could never realize its teaching mission.
Not long before his death in 1987, Sackler attempted to adopt his adult assistant Miguel A. Benavides. “You don’t have to answer now, but I would like that and it would be good for you too,” Benavides recalled him saying. “In this way, your children will also carry the Sackler name.”
Though he considered Sackler “a mentor and a father figure,” Benavides politely declined the offer to formalize their relationship. “He was sad, but understood I was proud of my father’s name,” he remembered in a 2012 book detailing his former employers art collection. “Yet I am equally proud of my connection to Dr. Sackler and his work.”
Benavides could not be reached for comment on whether his opinions on Sackler have changed in recent years.
Sackler, who had assumed that his family name would have benefited Benavides, likely never anticipated that it would become synonymous with Purdue Pharma.
That connection, legitimate or not, only developed after his death. The program for the Sackler’s memorial service held in Memorial Church contained only one reference to the pharmaceutical company: A performance by a chamber orchestra from Stamford, Conn., where Purdue Pharma is headquartered.
Jillian Sackler, Arthur’s widow, argued in a previous comment to The Crimson that her husband had “nothing to do with” the opioid crisis.
"It is a gross injustice to connect Arthur to the opioid crisis some 30 years after his death when he had nothing to do with it,” she wrote. “It denies the many important contributions he made working to improve world health and to build cultural bridges between peoples.”
But activists and medical professionals alike have challenged her claim.
In the 1950s, the chemical producer Pfizer contracted the William Douglas McAdams Company, an advertising agency where Arthur Sackler had worked throughout medical school and later purchased, to market Terramycin, its new antibiotic. Under Sackler’s leadership, the company pioneered a series of strategies then unprecedented in the drug market — branding with flashy graphics, free samples, attractive advertisements in medical journals — that, as argued by Doctors Scott H. Podolsky, David Herzberg, and Jeremy A. Greene in the New England Journal of Medicine, created the playbook that his brothers would adapt to great success in the marketing of OxyContin.
The aggressive language of one of the William Douglas McAdams Company’s internal documents — entitled “Easy Prey for Terramycin” — seems to suggest that the prey in question are the doctors prescribing the drug, not the bacteria the drug is designed to combat. And the company was successful: Over the decade that Sackler’s advertising agency worked with Pfizer, the rate at which doctors prescribed antibiotics like Terramycin nearly quintupled.
“No single individual did more to shape the character of medical advertising than the multi-talented Dr. Arthur Sackler,” declared the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame in 1998. “His seminal contribution was bringing the full power of advertising and promotion to pharmaceutical marketing.” Sackler was posthumously inducted two years after OxyContin was first released.
Janet Wooten, a spokesperson for Jillian Sackler, rebukes the claim that the advertising tactics Mortimer and Raymond Sackler used to market OxyContin can be traced to their elder brother Arthur. “Arthur M. Sackler pioneered the first direct-to-physician newsletter, The Medical Tribune, in 1962, at a time when doctors sought news on the many drugs rapidly coming onto the market,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “To say that this form of marketing to doctors spearheaded the opioid crisis is analogous to claiming the mimeograph machine spawned email spam,” she continued. “Arthur did not contribute to the development of opioids; neither he nor his heirs profited from opioids, and none of his philanthropy was derived from opioids.”
Sackler funded the construction of his museum on Harvard’s campus long before OxyContin was developed. But when Mortimer and Raymond debuted the painkiller seven years after his death, it was in part by using many of their brother’s advertising tactics that they were able to market it to such success. In the years following the release of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma funded more than 20,000 pain-related educational programs and donated extensively to the American Pain Society, the American Academy of Pain Medicine, the Federation of State Medical Boards, the Joint Commission, and even pain patient groups. As a result, each group advocated for more aggressive treatment of pain, typically through the use of opioid pain relievers like OxyContin.
In previous comment to The Crimson, Robert Josephson, Purdue Pharma’s chief director of communications, never explicitly contested his company’s culpability in the opioid epidemic, writing instead that he shared “concern about the prescription and illicit opioid crisis,” was “committed to being part of the solution,” and felt that “more needed to be done.” Facing more than 2,600 federal and state lawsuits, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Sept. 15.
As Purdue Pharma’s legacy solidifies, Arthur Sackler’s remains hotly contested.
Though he never lived to see the “new millennium” he so enthusiastically anticipated in 1985, Sackler’s museum survives, currently housing the Department of History of Art and Architecture. From its location on Quincy Street, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, the “miracle” that affirmed Harvard’s commitment to arts education, has witnessed the fallout of its patron’s dualism, of the contrast between the quiet philanthropist remembered by his widow and the aggressive pharmaceutical advertiser challenged by activists. While battles rage, questions of the museum’s future and its benefactor’s past linger.
—Magazine writer Andrew W. D. Aoyama can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewAoyama.