The Sacklers and OxyContin

Three poor brothers built themselves into a big pharma empire worth billions. But greed would cost the family their company—and millions of lives.

The Sackler brothers—Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond—were the epitome of the American dream come true. The sons of Jewish Ukrainian grocers who immigrated to the United States at the turn of the century, the three boys grew up impoverished in 1930s Brooklyn after their parents lost their savings in the stock market crash. All three brothers, however, were especially brilliant, graduating from Erasmus Hall High School with honors and earning acceptance into medical school.

Arthur, the oldest and the leader of the family, received his undergraduate and medical degrees at NYU, a prestigious institution that carefully vetted its applicants. He completed his internship and service as a house physician at Lincoln Hospital in New York City and later became a pioneer in the use of ultrasound as a diagnostic tool, as well as histamine therapy to cure psychiatric disorders.

Mortimer attended the Anderson College of Medicine, Glasgow University, between 1937 and 1939 (he was not accepted by a New York medical school due to quotas on the number of Jewish students), sailing steerage to get to the UK. When World War II broke out, he returned to America and completed his degree at the Middlesex University School of Medicine in Massachusetts.

Raymond’s education followed a similar trajectory. He, too, attended medical school in Glasgow, volunteering in the British Home Guard during the war. He later served as a plane spotter and returned home at the end of the war to finish his medical degree at Middlesex.
After lengthy detours to complete their medical degrees and residencies, all three brothers worked in tandem, distinguishing themselves for their breakthrough research at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens. They were brilliant and innovative, coming up with advanced medication techniques that ended the horrific practice of lobotomies (the surgical removal of neural connections to and from the prefrontal cortex to treat psychiatric and neurological disorders. These treatments were primitive and often caused permanent brain damage. Patients of lobotomy were often left incontinent and with lifelong seizures.) In addition, the Sacklers were among the first to fight for the racial integration of blood banks.


To read more, subscribe to Ami