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The Other Sackler: Inside a widow’s campaign to protect her husband’s name from the opioid addiction epidemic

Dame Jillian Sackler is pictured in Washington outside of the Smithsonian Gallery that bears the name of her late husband, Arthur M. Sackler. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — Overseeing philanthropic endeavors and tending to her late husband’s image are the cornerstones of Dame Jillian Sackler’s public life. With a foundation to support her charitable work, which she manages from her Park Avenue home, it would seem a comfortable role.

But behind the black-tie galas and gallery openings, Sackler said she’s frequently anguished.

News about the nation’s opioid epidemic invariably mentions the Sackler family because it owns Purdue Pharma, which introduced the prescription narcotic OxyContin in 1996. But Jillian Sackler’s late husband, Arthur M. Sackler, was not among the “OxySacklers,’’ as she calls them.

Arthur Sackler died of a heart attack in 1987, nine years before OxyContin hit the market. His branch of the Sacklers cashed out of the family drug business soon after his death and has not reaped any of the billions of dollars in OxyContin profits.

In an interview over tea at an Upper East Side hotel, Jillian Sackler laments that these facts are lost in the public debate. She has found it difficult to separate her husband’s name, she said, from the damage wrought by OxyContin. In media coverage, she often finds Arthur lumped together with his younger brothers, Raymond and Mortimer, as co-founders of a business dynasty largely built on the sale of addictive opioids.

“He died over 30 years ago, and he’s the scapegoat,’’ she said. “It’s absolutely incredible.’’

States contend the Sackler family is trying to shield billions in OxyContin profits through Purdue Pharma bankruptcy

Museums and other institutions bearing the Sackler name have been targeted by protesters denouncing opioid prescribing, including the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the repository of Asian art on the Mall in Washington, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University. Those museums have received no money from his relatives and have no direct links to OxyContin.

Jillian Sackler has written letters, an op-ed in The Washington Post and hired a public relations firm to help her tell Arthur Sackler’s story from her point of view. But untangling the family connections, she said, is “like spitting into the wind.’’

“I am now wondering,’’ she said, “if his legacy will ever recover.’’

A pharmaceutical marketing executive, psychiatrist and Asian art collector, Arthur Sackler was the oldest of the three brothers who bought Purdue Frederick, the predecessor to Purdue Pharma, in 1952. But where his brothers built their reputations manufacturing and selling pharmaceuticals, Arthur Sackler gained his business renown by promoting them.

He is credited with being among the first to employ Madison Avenue marketing tactics to persuade doctors to prescribe specific pharmaceuticals. Perhaps most prominently, he helped the Swiss company Roche transform the tranquilizer Valium into a household name in the 1960s and 1970s.

“His seminal contribution was bringing the full power of advertising and promotion to pharmaceutical marketing,’’ the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame said after he was inducted posthumously in 1997.

Jillian was Arthur’s third wife, about 30 years his junior. Having grown up in a middle-class British family and attended business college, she met him while she was working at his brother-in-law’s advertising agency in London. She moved to New York with him in the late 1960s but they did not marry for another decade, she said, because, although he was separated, his divorce from his second wife took years to complete.

She recalls a husband whose intellectual interests were broad and deep. He would read dense medical journals in bed and pore over auction catalogues. His art collection spanned thousands of objects, with a strong focus on Chinese sculpture. After his death at age 73, he was eulogized by prominent figures in memorial services at the Kennedy Center, the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harvard.

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“He was incredibly clever. I thought that his greatest distinction was that he understood art and science,’’ Jillian Sackler said. “He was at the top of the art world and the science world.’’

She said she has never been close to other branches of the Sackler family. At the time of Arthur Sackler’s death, his estate was worth an estimated $140 million, the focal point of protracted legal disputes between Jillian Sackler and his four children from previous marriages. She and Arthur did not have children together.

The Sacklers have donated millions to museums. But their connection to the opioid crisis is threatening that legacy.

But when it comes to OxyContin, the divided heirs have found common cause in their efforts to create a wall between Arthur’s legacy and the opioid epidemic.

Elizabeth Sackler, one of two daughters from his first marriage, said in a written statement early this year that she considered Purdue Pharma’s role in the opioid crisis “morally abhorrent.’’

She is listed as the chief executive of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, which had $20 million in assets in 2017, including art on loan to museums, according to public tax filings. She did not respond to a request for comment. Jillian Sackler runs the Dame Jillian and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, which has $4 million in assets and distributes grants to art projects and institutes.

The history of Purdue Pharma is rooted in the lives of the three Sackler brothers, sons of Jewish immigrants who were grocers in Brooklyn.

Arthur, a psychiatrist who received his medical degree from New York University, played mentor to his younger siblings, Jillian Sackler said, putting them through medical school in Scotland and inviting them to join him at a New York academic laboratory in his research of mental disorders.

The three bought Purdue Frederick in 1952. After 1960, Jillian Sackler said, Arthur played only a passive role in the company, which made prosaic treatments such as laxatives, earwax remover and topical disinfectant. In the 1980s, it developed a long-acting form of morphine pill, MSContin, which was introduced to the market the year Arthur Sackler died.

Arthur Sackler left the running of Purdue Frederick to his brothers and was more focused on his medical advertising and publishing business, as well as using his growing fortune to pursue his interests in Asian art, science, nutrition and world peace, Jillian Sackler said.

She described rifts between the brothers that grew wider over the decades. She cited rivalries over philanthropic works but said she was unaware of the details. By the time Arthur died, she said, he was barely in contact with his brothers.

“I thought that the two of them [Raymond and Mortimer] were like that,’’ she said, hoisting a hand and holding two fingers tightly together, “and against Arthur. That was the impression he gave me — that they were both together against him.”

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After his death, Purdue Frederick paid nearly $25 million to buy his heirs out of the drug company. The buyout was structured as a loan that was not paid off until 1997, ProPublica reported this year, which raised the possibility that OxyContin profits were used to pay off the note — a suggestion that Jillian Sackler disputes.

She said that throughout his career, her husband used his medical training to ensure that his drug advertising and promotion were scientifically accurate. It is her contention that he would have prevented Purdue Pharma from creating misleading OxyContin promotions based on allegedly skimpy evidence.

“He would have made them change the [promotions] immediately,’’ she said. “Even if they did say, ‘Here’s a study,’ he would have said, ‘This study is a fraud.’ ’’

Raymond Sackler’s family said in a statement emailed to The Washington Post that he viewed Arthur as a mentor, even after they grew apart later in life.

“It is unfortunate for Jillian and for Arthur’s children and grandchildren how some in the media have sought to attack their entire family as they have other Sacklers,’’ said Daniel S. Connolly, an attorney for Raymond Sackler’s family.

“Any member of the Sackler family who has worked at Purdue would certainly have sought to prevent deceptive marketing if they learned of it,’’ he added, “and no one doubts the assertion that Arthur, likewise, would have done the same.”

Specialists in the history of prescription drug marketing have dubbed Arthur Sackler a “medical impresario’’ who made his biggest mark figuring out how to market drugs directly to doctors. He began working in 1942 at an advertising agency called William Douglas McAdams in New York. Within a few years, he bought the firm, which became a premier force in the business.

He developed a campaign to persuade doctors to prescribe antibiotics manufactured by Pfizer in the 1950s, as well as successful strategies for Roche to market Librium and Valium in the 1960s and 1970s. They were potent tranquilizers sold as a solution to everyday anxieties. Ads were placed in medical journals. One for Librium in 1969 marketed it to doctors to treat young women experiencing the stress of going to college. An ad for Valium emphasized its benefits for educated women experiencing “psychic tension,’’ a phrase that does not appear in its Food and Drug Administration-approved label.

Under Arthur Sackler’s marketing guidance, Valium became the most-often prescribed drug in the country during the 1970s. It also was blamed for abuse and popularized as “Mother’s Little Helper’’ in a Rolling Stones song. By 1980, the FDA announced a label change to Valium and other tranquilizers. Roche agreed to add a statement that the drugs were generally not intended for “the stress of everyday life.’’

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Jillian Sackler said Arthur Sackler told her that Valium was a safe drug and that people who overdosed had mixed it with alcohol or cocaine.

“He didn’t express sorrow or regret’’ about Valium or its overuse, she said. “Arthur was incredibly safety-conscious. His modus operandi with ads was to give people as much information as possible.’’

During his decades at the leading edge of the drug marketing business, Sackler forged tactics that are common in medical marketing today — including those Purdue Pharma used to market OxyContin, said Scott H. Podolsky, a physician at Harvard Medical School who studies the history of pharmaceutical promotion. These include personal physician visits by a sales force, free meals, free samples and advertising aimed at doctors.

Sackler argued throughout his career, including in testimony before Congress in 1962, Podolsky added, that advertising was the most effective way for doctors to learn about the latest treatments. He also said that doctors were too savvy to be duped.

Although Purdue Pharma sold OxyContin using the same tactics, Podolsky said, the same could be said for all modern drug marketing.

“I have trouble laying OxyContin at Arthur Sackler’s feet, per se,’’ he said. But, he added, “the entire practice of medical marketing and its role in physician education bears directly from Sackler’s influence.’’

The idea that Purdue Pharma adopted Arthur Sackler’s marketing playbook to sell OxyContin is what animates protesters.

Photographer Nan Goldin is a well-known artist and recovering opioid addict who has led public protests targeting institutions that have accepted many millions of dollars from Sackler family members, including Arthur Sackler. The protests have been highly effective at focusing public pressure. The Guggenheim and the Louvre, which benefited from Mortimer Sackler’s contributions, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has received contributions from all three brothers, have said they will no longer accept donations from the family. The Louvre removed signs with the Sackler name from a wing displaying Persian antiquities.

Hoping to extract Arthur’s name from intense media attention, Jillian Sackler’s public relations representative wrote an email in March to Goldin’s agent.

“We request that going forward, Ms. Goldin make clear the distinction between Arthur M. Sackler — his widow and heirs, his foundation and philanthropic gifts — and the actions of others in the family,’’ Janet Wootten, a senior vice president at Rubenstein Communications, wrote in an email that Goldin’s nonprofit organization, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN), shared with The Post.

It had little to no effect.

The PAIN website continues to carry pictures of protesters outside the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington. Goldin acknowledged that OxyContin hit the market years after Arthur Sackler’s death but said his marketing tactics laid the groundwork.

Purdue Pharma’s overzealous sale of OxyContin “would not have happened without Arthur Sackler. I think he’s as complicit as anyone,’’ she said. “He’s the one who developed the business model.’’

Asked about Jillian Sackler’s assertion that Arthur Sackler would have stopped Purdue Pharma from engaging in deceptive marketing, Goldin replied: “Does anyone believe that? How cynical is that? They made $35 billion on this drug — he would have been horrified?’’

The Smithsonian Institution, which operates the gallery on the Mall, has rejected calls to strip Arthur Sackler’s name.

Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III told Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) earlier this year that Arthur Sackler gave the Smithsonian 1,000 objects of Asian art, plus money to build the gallery, in 1982, a decade and a half before OxyContin’s introduction. The gallery opened in 1987 (the year Sackler died).

The agreement between the Smithsonian and Arthur Sackler, Bunch wrote to Merkley, required that his name remain on the gallery in perpetuity.