What’s in a name? The Sackler Empire behind America’s Opioid Crisis

The announcement that the University of Oxford is removing the Sackler name from all buildings, spaces, and staff positions has reminded people of the history of the family. However, the recent action by Oxford University is the definition of too little, too late. The controversies and legacy of the Sackler family has been well-known for many years with 2,600 states and local governments in the United States having taken legal action against the Sackler owned Purdue Pharma, specifically the painkiller OxyContin, and the family themselves, in 2019. The Louvre was the first major museum to remove the Sackler name in 2019 and in 2021 the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who accepted a $3.5 million donation from Arthur Sackler for a new wing containing the Temple of Dendur, also dropped the name. Fellow universities, such as the University of Edinburgh in 2021, followed this trend. Therefore, the announcement from Oxford University in 2023 was not unprecedented, with many other institutions taking this step a few years previously. Moreover, the Sackler name will remain on the Clarendon Arch and on the Ashmolean’s donor board, as a record of their donations which have totalled between £10 to 15 million since 1993. Oxford argues that this is for ‘educational purposes’ and that no donations have been received from the Sackler family since 2019. Yet, the recent announcement has left me feeling underwhelmed, too small a gesture being made too late.

Who are the Sackler family?

I was introduced to the Sackler family by Patrick Radden Keefe’s book Empire of Pain. The book chronologically details the history of the family from Arthur, Mortimer, and Raymond Sackler, the three children of Jewish immigrants in the 1930s, to the development and marketing of OxyContin, a highly addictive opioid. OxyContin heavily contributed to the opioid crisis which claimed 500,000 American lives which began in the 1990s. The marketing of OxyContin, introduced to the market in 1996, played down its addictive qualities. Purdue Pharma marketing claimed the drug was less addictive than Morphine, which later was proven to be a false claim. The family argues that OxyContin was mainly used to treat cancer patients with severe end-of-life pain, however they have faced thousands of lawsuits for downplaying the addictiveness and risk of abuse in advertisement. 

Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy, and in 2021, although they admitted no wrongdoing, the Sackler family agreed to never produce opioids again. They also reached a financial settlement of £10 billion paid overtime to a charitable organisation. The settlement also specifically called for certain members of the family to contribute $5.5.billion to $6 billion over the next 17 years to ease the opioid crisis. However, there is a substantial feeling that this legal punishment does not fit the crime. The Sackler family appears to remain relatively unscathed while the opioid crisis still takes the lives of 100,000 Americans a year. Purdue Pharma, the privately owned company, has pleaded guilty to many federal crimes but the Sackler name remained relatively untarnished. The family spent time and money building their reputation in New York society and then went global with their philanthropy. 

The Sackler family is well known for their philanthropy to many academic and cultural institutions on both sides of the Atlantic. Arthur Sackler began this trend with his large collection of Chinese artefacts and long standing relationship with the Met in New York. The Sackler Trust gave more than $15 million in a year to British public bodies, with its largest donation of £500,000 being received by Newbury’s Watermill theatre, followed by £280,000 given to the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra Trust. Donations were paused in 2019, as many members of the family stood accused in federal cases, and were broadly never resumed again. Keefe details in his book that the philanthropy of the Sackler family was a vital element of their image. The family appeared publicly disconnected from Purdue Pharma and OxyContin, mainly being known for their contributions to education and the arts for many years. The philanthropic element of the family allowed them to create a publicly separate image, avoiding blame for the opioid epidemic plaguing America.

Oxford University continued their relationship with the Sackler family until May 2023, which was considerably later than other institutions who began to cut ties with the family as early as 2019. The most notable Sackler contribution to the University of Oxford is the Sackler Library but in 2021 Oxford Development Trust also received £50,332 from the Sackler Trust to fund previously pledged research positions at Worcester College and the Ashmolean. In 2022, Dame Theresa Sackler was invited to a private viewing of the Oxford and Cambridge boat race, invited as a member of the “Chancellor’s Court of Benefactors” according to the guest list. In September 2022, Theresa Sackler was also invited to the Ashmolean gala dinner. While Oxford University has not accepted new donations from the Sackler family since 2019, they have not removed them from their privileged position within the University. Going forward I hope that the formal severing of financial ties with the Sackler family also means that the University cuts all social and cultural links to the opioid empire. 

The decision by Oxford University to remove the Sackler name, although maybe well intended, seems inadequate and performative. The Sackler family has been tied to the opioid crisis in America for some years now, with institutions begging to drop their name from 2019. Part of the survival of the Sackler family relied on their philanthropy retaining a clean and generous image. I can only hope we are moving into a ‘new era’ as George Osbrone, the chair of the British Museum, proclaimed as they too cut ties with the Sackler family. However, in order to move on these institutions need to confront the uncomfortable truth of where the Sackler donations came from and respond accordingly.

Image Description: OxyCodone prescription bottle with pills spilling out.

Image Credits: Cindy ShebleyCL via Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)