Patrick Radeen Keefe’s award-winning book, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty is an extraordinary account of the Sackler family. Beginning life in Flatbush, Brooklyn, the three brothers — Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler — built an empire worth billions of dollars. Their only inheritance from their first-generation immigrant parents was their name. The sons, especially Arthur, ensured that the Sackler name was emblazoned on the walls of prestigious institutions like museums and universities. The brothers, all of whom had trained as doctors, donated generously to the Met, Smithsonian, Columbia University and Harvard University. Few knew where this wealth originated.
Patrick Radden Keefe unravels the stupendous history behind the obscene amounts of wealth that the Sackler family had made. He methodically explains Arthur Sackler’s workaholic nature that enabled him to earn money for his family while he was still in school. The young Arthur was earning sufficient money to feed and keep his family health and safe even during the Depression. Post-war, by which time he was also a qualified doctor, Arthur was practising medicine but also a publicist for pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and Roche. The popular demand that Arthur Sackler managed to create for drugs like Terramycin, Valium and Betadine, by running superb marketing campaigns ensured that he was true to his promise to the manufacturing firms that he would make the names of these medicines “household names”. What is truly extraordinary is that Arthur Sackler negotiated deals for himself with the companies that were equivalent to a sliding scale of “royalties” as payment for running the campaigns. So as the companies earned millions of dollars from the sale of the pills, Arthur Sackler’s income rose proportionately ( the manufacturers could not keep pace with the demand!). It meant that the brothers could easily relocate to posher parts of New York. Slowly and steadily, Arthur also began to build one of the largest private collections of Chinese antiques. Soon, the brothers had sufficient money to buy a small, nondescript pharmaceutical company called Purdue Pharma. This became the firm that was used to create and sell drugs. For a long time, the brothers names were linked to selling laxatives and less harmful drugs, very different to what the PR firm they owned was promoting. But it is their development of the OxyContin drug, that was easily available and the basis of the opioid crisis that is truly terrifying. Knowingly, the Sackler family profited billions of dollars while more than 450,000 Americans perished due to this drug — the number far exceeding the combined number of American casualties in all the conflicts since World War II.
There is so much in this book to share that it is impossible to say it all in a short book review. Please read it. Empire of Pain documents the insidious and nefarious ways in which empires are built, economic exploitation of the masses is done in a calculating manner but the powers-that-be are unable to or rather choose not to do anything about it as the Sacklers bribe them. This book is packed with details as to how smoothly the family operated. Most often, Mortimer and Raymond were clueless about the operations as their brother was the mastermind. Yet, as became evident that with Arthur Sackler’s death, the remaining brothers and the younger generations, had inherited the buzz to make money at whatever cost. Arthur Sackler may have negotiated some mind-bogglingly smart deals ( inevitably in his favour) but it was his extended clan that manufactured OxyContin and profited from it. It became harder and harder to pinpoint the Sacklers as being responsible for the healthcare crisis. It required the dogged persistence of the New Yorker reporter, Keefe, to wade through piles and piles of documents, visit archives, interview over 200 people and read correspondence with friends and acquaintances of the Sacklers ( as the brothers were notoriously secretive) to write this comprehensive account. Through it all, no one from the family was ready to speak to him, not even via their lawyer. Yet, he wrote this award-winning book. So far it has won the Baillie Gifford Prize and has been shortlisted for many others.
Empire of Pain is highly recommended.
22 Jan 2022