Raymond Sackler, Psychopharmacology Pioneer and Philanthropist, Dies at 97


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Raymond was the middle brother and was regarded as the most retiring. Arthur, the eldest, died in 1987, Mortimer in 2010.

“Raymond was a tremendous supporter of basic science and of young people doing research in basic science,” Dr. Phillip A. Sharp, a Nobel Prize-winning professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an email. “His main interest was the intersection of mathematical, engineering and physical sciences with biomedical science” — an emerging field known as convergence science.

OxyContin, introduced in 1995, was Purdue Pharma’s breakthrough palliative for chronic pain. Under a marketing strategy that Arthur Sackler had pioneered decades earlier, the company aggressively pressed doctors to prescribe the drug, wooing them with free trips to pain-management seminars and paid speaking engagements. Sales soared.

By 2001, prescriptions for OxyContin were generating more than $1.5 billion a year — surpassing sales of Viagra — and accounted for some 80 percent of the company’s revenue.

OxyContin, made with a synthetic version of morphine, was said to be nonaddictive because in the form of long-acting tablets, it released its active ingredient slowly.

But the time-release effect could be defeated by crushing the tablets and snorting the powder, or by smoking it, or by adding water and injecting it — all for an immediate, sometimes heroinlike, high.

Federal regulators accused Purdue Pharma of misleading consumers when it asserted that OxyContin was less likely than traditional narcotics to be abused.

In 2007, the company agreed to pay $600 million to resolve the federal charges, although its executives insisted that they had adequately informed doctors and consumers about the potential for drug abuse and had responded quickly to reports of overdose deaths.

They also said they had contributed to independent research on pain to guard against rampant overprescribing.

“During the past six years, we have implemented changes to our internal training, compliance and monitoring systems that seek to assure that similar events do not occur again,” the company said at the time of the settlement.

Several company officials pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of misbranding and were fined more than $34 million. The Sacklers personally were never formally accused of wrongdoing.

Raymond Raphael Sackler was born on Feb. 16, 1920, in Brooklyn to Isaac Sackler and the former Sophie Ziesel, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who ran a grocery store.

After graduating from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, he earned a bachelor of science degree from New York University in 1938.

At a time when medical schools in New York imposed quotas on the number of Jewish students they would admit, Raymond Sackler pursued his medical degree at Anderson College of Medicine in Glasgow, where he also joined the British Home Guard and served as a plane spotter during World War II. He graduated from Middlesex University Medical School in Waltham, Mass. (It closed later in the 1940s.)

In 1944, Dr. Sackler married the former Beverly Feldman, who survives him. Survivors also include their two sons, Richard and Jonathan.

The brothers founded the Creedmoor Institute of Psychobiological Studies at the state hospital in Queens Village, N.Y. (Raymond and Mortimer, who were studying skin burns for the Atomic Energy Commission there, were dismissed in 1953 when they refused to sign an Army loyalty oath requiring them to report participants who engaged in conversations deemed subversive.)

Early on, the three brothers “helped pioneer research of the biology of psychiatric illnesses,” BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) wrote in 2011, “research that helped open the door decades later toward drug treatments.”

It was Arthur Sackler, a trailblazer in medical advertising, who financed the purchase of a small Greenwich Village drug manufacturer, the Purdue Frederick Company, in 1952, according to the book “Pain Killer: A ‘Wonder’ Drug’s Trail of Addiction and Death” (2003), by Barry Meier, a reporter for The New York Times. Raymond and Mortimer became co-chairmen.

The company’s products included an ear wax remover, a laxative, a “metabolic cerebral tonic” called Gray’s Glycerine (its formula was 11 percent alcohol) and the antiseptic Betadine, the familiar orange disinfectant smeared on patients’ skin before surgery. (In 1969, the astronaut Neil Armstrong decontaminated the Apollo landing module with Betadine after his moon walk.)

The company began experimenting with generic oxycodone, which was invented in Germany during World War I, to create a time-release formula that would spread the analgesic narcotic’s effects over 12 hours and, among other things, allow pain sufferers to sleep through the night.

Before developing OxyContin, the company, in 1984, created MS Contin, an extended-release, morphine-based drug to relieve cancer pain.

The Sacklers were benefactors of, among other institutions, the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts University, the Mortimer and Raymond Sackler Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Tel Aviv, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery for Assyrian Art at the Metropolitan Museum, Leiden University in the Netherlands, Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, the British Museum, and the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Medical Research Center at the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine.

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