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Manufacture Business Practice, Small Molecules, Trends & Forecasts

Remembering Raymond Sackler

Raymond Sackler began life in New York as the son of Brooklyn grocers who emigrated from Eastern Europe; he died as a member of the 19th “richest family in America” (1). Raymond was the last survivor among three psychiatrist brothers who transformed a struggling small drugmaker into what later became the global pharmaceutical company – Purdue Pharma.

Sackler was born in 1920 and received a Bachelor of Science at New York University in the 1930s, but was unable to enroll in medical school due to quotas imposed on the number of Jewish students US medical schools could admit. In 1938, he moved to Glasgow, Scotland, to train as a doctor at Anderson College of Medicine. When World War II started, he joined the British Home Guard serving as a plane spotter, and after the war, he moved back to the States to finish his medical training, before specializing in psychiatry and neurology. With his two brothers Arthur and Mortimer Sackler, he then co-founded the Creedmoor Institute for Psychobiological Studies in New York City. Raymond was a pioneer in psychopharmacology at a time when psychiatry was dominated by the Freudian School.

Sackler and his wife Beverly supported numerous programs embracing the concept of convergence in scientific research and international collaboration: at the University of Washington, the California Institute for Technology, and elsewhere. They also supported research in astronomy and physics, and donated to various galleries and museums. Raymond has been honored for his exceptional philanthropy, becoming an honorary Knight Commander in the Order of the British Empire (KBE), an Officer in the Royal Order of Orange Nassau, The Netherlands, and an Officer de la Légion d'honneur, France.

In 1952, the Sackler brothers purchased Purdue Frederick, then a small company located in Greenwich Village, New York, which became Purdue Pharma. The company was best known for the antiseptic, Betadine, the laxative, Senokot, and the earwax remover, Cerumenex, before the introduction of its opioid, OxyContin, in 1995. By 2001, OxyContin was generating more than $1.5 billion a year and accounted for around 80 percent of the company’s revenue (2).

The drug was marketed as a less addictive alternative to other opioids, such as Percocet or Vicodin, with its relatively slow, 12-hour release. The company deployed a sales force to convince doctors of its lower potential for addition – and offered free trips to pain management conferences or paid speaking engagements. But in 2001, the New York Times reported that a rapidly increasing number of people were bypassing the slow release formulation by crushing the pills and either inhaling the drug, or mixing it with liquid and injecting, for a quick and powerful high – comparable with heroin (3).

The company was fined $634.5 million after Purdue sales reps fraudulently downplayed the drug’s potential for abuse – sometimes using fake scientific charts, which they distributed to doctors. While Raymond and his two brothers were never accused of any wrongdoing, senior executives of the company paid a total of $34.5 million in fines after pleading guilty to “misbranding” (4). The company is currently facing a number of additional lawsuits, and last month it paid out $20 million to around 2000 Canadians (5).

Despite the troubles facing Purdue and OxyContin, many will remember Sackler as a pioneering psychiatrist, and an exceptionally generous philanthropist, who donated much of his fortune to the cause of advancing scientific understanding and supporting the arts.

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  1. Forbes, “America’s Richest Families”, (2016). Last accessed 1 August, 2017. Available at:
  2. The New York Times, “Raymond Sackler, Psychopharmacology Pioneer and Philanthropist, dies at 97”, (2017). Last accessed 1 August, 2017. Available at:
  3. The New York Times, “The Alchemy of OxyContin”, (2001). Last accessed 1 August, 2017. Available at:
  4. The New York Times, “In guilty plea, OxyContin maker to pay $600 million”, (2007). Last accessed 1 August, 2017. Available at:
  5. The Globe and Mail, “Purdue Pharma agrees to settle OxyContin class-action suit”, (2017). Last accessed 1 August, 2017. Available at:
About the Author
James Strachan

Over the course of my Biomedical Sciences degree it dawned on me that my goal of becoming a scientist didn’t quite mesh with my lack of affinity for lab work. Thinking on my decision to pursue biology rather than English at age 15 – despite an aptitude for the latter – I realized that science writing was a way to combine what I loved with what I was good at.


From there I set out to gather as much freelancing experience as I could, spending 2 years developing scientific content for International Innovation, before completing an MSc in Science Communication. After gaining invaluable experience in supporting the communications efforts of CERN and IN-PART, I joined Texere – where I am focused on producing consistently engaging, cutting-edge and innovative content for our specialist audiences around the world.

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