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Opinion Stop blaming my late husband, Arthur Sackler, for the opioid crisis

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington.
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Jillian Sackler is president and chief executive of the Dame Jillian and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler Foundation for the Arts, Sciences and Humanities.

We live in an age when assigning blame has become a national obsession, especially when it comes to the horrors of the opioid crisis. How did this happen? Who is responsible? Hearsay builds upon hearsay in the search for culprits, until guilt is assumed — without evidence.

My late husband, Arthur Sackler, who died in 1987, has been found guilty by association — along with the rest of what is referred to by the blanket designation “the Sackler family” — because of some family members’ association with Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. Yet, like most families, the Sackler family is not a monolith. Neither Arthur nor his heirs had anything to do with the manufacture or marketing of OxyContin. Suggestions that his philanthropy is now somehow tainted are simply false.

Purdue Pharma in its current form was founded by Arthur’s younger brothers, Mortimer and Raymond, four years after his death. None of the 1,600-plus lawsuits filed against Purdue Pharma, members of the Sackler family or others in the opioid business names Arthur or his heirs as defendants.

Arthur died of a heart attack nearly 32 years ago at age 73, nearly a decade before OxyContin came to market. He was a psychiatrist, researcher and successful medical marketer in the nascent years of modern advertising. In 1960, he published one of the first newspapers for doctors, which eventually was distributed to 20 countries in eight languages. As a respected U.S. medical expert, he was invited in 1976 to advise the Chinese Ministry of Health.

In addition to his work in medicine, Arthur was an avid art collector and connoisseur. During the 1950s, he started several personal foundations for the arts, sciences and humanities. During the 1960s, he funded the first Asian art gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in an era when Asian art was underappreciated in the United States. In the 1980s, he donated 1,000 remarkable pieces of Asian art to the Smithsonian Institution and helped fund the construction of a museum to house them. He died a few months before the museum bearing his name opened on the Mall.

It is incredible to me that last year, the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art was the target of demonstrators protesting the opioid crisis. Other institutions that benefited from his philanthropy have also been targeted. Even critics who acknowledge that Arthur died long before the invention of OxyContin nevertheless maintain that he somehow shares responsibility for this scourge because he was a pioneer in medical marketing, and medical marketing has encouraged the spread of OxyContin.

Arthur is not here to answer back, but I can tell you that blaming him for OxyContin’s marketing, or for any other wrongdoing by the pharmaceutical industry, is as ludicrous as blaming the inventor of the mimeograph for email spam.

Fair-minded people who see the terrible consequences of the opioid crisis understandably seek justice and restitution. They demand that legal settlements fund treatment centers for all in need. For that, I am in wholehearted support.

But make no mistake: Vilifying an innocent man is wrong. It does nothing to help the United States come to grips with the epidemic, nothing to advance solutions. It is profoundly hurtful to his family and to institutions such as the Smithsonian that are now unjustly under pressure to distance themselves from his name and his gifts.

Read more:

A letter writer responds to this op-ed: Blame Arthur Sackler, after all

Hugh Eakin: For better or worse, our greatest museums are built on the backs of billionaires

Robert Gebelhoff: The opioid crisis is too big for justice to stop with the Sackler family

Charles Lane: Here’s one billionaire who really might be a policy failure

The Post’s View: The opioid epidemic is no time for risky pharmaceutical marketing

Julietter Kayyem: Congress created tools to fight the opioid crisis. But is the administration using them?