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The Harvard Art Museums.
The Harvard Art Museums.

Activists Demand Removal of Sackler Name from Harvard Buildings

A new filing in a Massachusetts lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the Connecticut-based pharmaceutical company owned by the Sackler family, has prompted politicians and activists to call on Harvard University to strip the Sackler name from its campus buildings. The company, the manufacturer of the powerful painkiller OxyContin, sparked the United States’ opioid epidemic through its aggressive marketing of the drug.

On Tuesday, January 15, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura T. Healey filed a pre-hearing memorandum that added eight members of the Sackler family—current and former members of Purdue Pharma’s board of directors—to a $500 million lawsuit filed last June. The amended complaint alleges that relatives of the late brothers Raymond and Mortimer Sackler, who built Purdue Pharma into the pharmaceutical empire it is today, were more directly involved in the controversial decisions made by the company than previously known.

While the family has long sought to distance itself from the day-to-day operations of the company—which paid $634.5 million in fines in 2007 after it pleaded guilty to misleading doctors and patients about the addictive nature of the drug—previously undisclosed documents, including internal emails, are the first pieces of evidence to emerge that show members of the family were aware that Purdue Pharma was pushing prescriptions of the drug despite the risks.

According to the New York Times, one email written in 2001 by Richard Sackler, the son of Raymond Sackler and a former president and chairman of the company, reads: “We have to hammer on abusers in every way possible. They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”

The filing also claims that the defendants failed to notify the police when they learned that the drug was being increasingly sold on the street and that after the conclusion of the 2007 lawsuit the family still maintained control of the company, despite having resigned from their positions at Purdue Pharma.

While Purdue Pharma maintains that it is committed to fighting the opioid crisis and that the court filing was “littered with biases and inaccurate characterizations,” the memorandum has ignited further protests against the family and its philanthropic efforts. The Sacklers have donated millions to arts institutions, medical schools, and other organizations over the years, but many believe that they have not done enough to address a problem that their relatives had a hand in creating. Among the institutions that have received funding from the family are Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution.

Photographer Nan Goldin and her anti-opioid P.A.I.N. group held several actions against the Sackler family last year, including at the Harvard Art Museums, New York University, the Met, and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

Following a protest and “die-in” at the Temple of Dendur, located in the Sackler Wing at the Met—Goldin’s first major “Shame on Sackler” protest—Jillian Sackler, the widow of Arthur, released a statement in which she stressed that her husband died a decade before Purdue Pharma developed and marketed OxyContin.

“None of the charitable donations made by Arthur prior to his death, nor that I made on his behalf after his death, were funded by the production, distribution or sale of OxyContin or other revenue from Purdue Pharma. Period,” Jillian said. However, many activists consider Arthur the advertising pioneer who laid the groundwork for how the drug was later marketed.

The filing has since led local activists in Massachusetts and students of Harvard to launch a petition with nearly three hundred signatures urging the university to “cut ties with [the] makers of OxyContin.” Harvard graduate Joseph A. Curtatone, mayor of Somerville, a city neighboring Cambridge, is calling for Harvard, as well as Tufts University, to remove the Sackler name from their campuses.

Meanwhile, in New York, the Met told the Art Newspaper that in the wake of the new developments it will reevaluate its policies on accepting donations. Daniel Weiss, the museum’s president and chief executive, noted that relationships with donors are complicated: “The Sackler family has been connected with The Met for more than a half century. The family is a large extended group and their support of The Met began decades before the opioid crisis.” Weiss added: “The Met is currently engaging in a further review of our detailed gift acceptance policies, and we will have more to report in due course.”