This Day in Jewish History

2010: You’ve Been to at Least One Museum Wing That Was Named for This Man

Mortimer Sackler was one of three brothers who donated to great museums and owned Purdue Pharma, which would be stained by the OxyContin case. Not so the brothers.

Jean-Christophe Benoist / Wikimedia Commons

On March 24, 2010, the psychiatrist, pharmaceutical entrepreneur and philanthropist Mortimer Sackler died, aged 93. If Sackler’s name is familiar to the members of the public, it is likely because they have visited one of the museums, such as the Louvre or New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, that has a wing named for its benefactor, or have a connection to one of the medical schools or research institutions bearing his family’s name.

Sackler kept a low personal profile, and neither he nor his brothers, Arthur and Raymond, who were his scientific and business partners, were well known to the public. Even when their largest company, the drug manufacturer Purdue Pharma, began to attract legal fire for the dangerous addictive qualities of its most successful product, the opioid OxyContin, little of the controversy rubbed off on the family.

Mortimer David Sackler was born on December 7, 1916, in Brooklyn, New York. His father, Isaac Sackler, was a Jewish immigrant from the village of Kuty, in Galicia (today Ukraine), and his mother, Sophie Greenberg, was born in Chorzele, Poland. His older brother, Arthur, was born in 1913, their younger brother, Raymond, was born in 1920. They also had two sisters.

Mortimer attended Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High School, where, as advertising manager of the school newspaper, he convinced the makers of Chesterfield cigarettes to place a regular ad, earning a generous commission for himself.

Didn’t make the Jewish quota

After graduating from New York University, he applied to medical schools in New York but was not accepted to any of them because of their quotas for Jewish students. In 1937 he sailed to Scotland, where friends of the family who were part of Glasgow’s Jewish community helped him to gain admittance to Anderson College of Medicine.

In the summer of 1939, Sackler was home on a visit when World War II broke out. Barred from returning to Glasgow, he transferred to the Middlesex University School of Medicine in Waltham, Massachusetts, which did not have a numerus clausus for Jews. He was awarded his medical degree in 1944. During the Korean War, Sackler served as an army psychiatrist in Denver, Colorado.

Arthur and Raymond Sackler both became psychiatrists as well, and from the late 1940s all three worked as research psychiatrists at the Creedmoor psychiatric hospital in Queens, New York.

Their work led them to propose drug treatments for psychiatric disorders, in place of treatments such as lobotomies and electroshock therapy, now known as electroconvulsive therapy. Mortimer would go on endow research institutions for psychobiology at U.S. and British universities.

The brothers buy a small patent medicine company

In 1952, Arthur bought a small Manhattan patent-medicine maker, Purdue Frederick, producer of Gray’s Glycerine Tonic Compound, and made Mortimer and Raymond its cochairmen. Purdue grew significantly after taking over the manufacturers of Betadine antiseptic and Senokot laxative, but would only become a serious pharmaceutical giant with the development of MS Contin and later OxyContin, two timed-release, morphine-based painkillers.

By 2001, sales of OxyContin were at $3 billion a year, and constituted more than 80 percent of Purdue’s sales revenue. (Arthur also had a sideline as a pioneer in pharmaceutical marketing, and some of OxyContin’s success is certainly due to aggressive methods used by the manufacturer to persuade physicians to prescribe it.)

But in 2007, Purdue paid the U.S. government $630 million in fines to settle a case in which it was charged with misleading physicians about the addictive qualities of the drug, after the deaths of numerous illicit users of the medication. Additional cases are still being litigated, including a high-stakes lawsuit currently being heard in Kentucky.

No Sackler family members, however, were personally charged in connection with the cases.

Mortimer Sackler remained active in his family’s businesses well into his 90s. He gave hundreds of millions of dollars to cultural and scientific institutions, including the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Tel Aviv University, New York’s Guggenheim Museum and London’s National Gallery, among many others.

Sackler died at his home in Gstaad, Switzerland. His third wife, Dame Theresa Rowling Sackler, survived him.