The Cambridge City Council passed a resolution Monday calling on Harvard to remove Arthur M. Sackler’s name from its museum.
Cambridge Mayor Marc C. McGovern proposed the resolution, which was passed unanimously by the council during their last full meeting of 2019. The resolution, which “admonishes” the University and calls upon them to “strip the Sackler family name” from the museum, was further amended to include every councilor as a sponsor before its passage.
Several members of the Sackler family have served as executives at Purdue Pharma, the company that manufactures OxyContin, an addictive painkiller which has been linked to the opioid epidemic. Arthur Sackler died in 1987, nearly a decade before OxyContin began to be marketed, but many activists still place responsibility on him for developing marketing techniques that Purdue’s sales teams would later use to distribute the drug to pharmacies and doctors.
In an interview Tuesday, McGovern criticized the Sackler family for “profiting” off of OxyContin, which he called a “major contributor to the opioid crisis.” He added that he believes both the city and Harvard should play a role in addressing the crisis. According to the resolution, Middlesex County, Mass. had the highest number of deaths by opioid-related overdose in the state between 2014 and 2018, including 124 deaths in Cambridge.
“I have been doing a lot of work on the opioid crisis, both in Cambridge and serving on the state harm reduction commission,” McGovern said. “We felt that Cambridge needed to be part of that movement as well and Harvard should be a part of that.”
Janet Wootten, a spokesperson for Jillian Sackler — the widow of Arthur Sackler — disputed several of the councilors’ remarks, writing in an emailed statement that any claims about Arthur Sackler having involvement in OxyContin are false.
“Arthur pioneered newsletters to physicians and direct mail marketing back in the 1950s and 1960s,” she wrote. “To say that he pioneered the methods that his brothers and their descendants used to market OxyContin is like saying that the man who invented the wheel is responsible for a massive car crash on a superhighway.”
Wootten added that criticism of the “Sackler family” as a whole is a “convenient myth,” and that Arthur Sackler’s descendants are not involved with or profit from OxyContin sales.
“The family is not a monolith,” she wrote.
During the meeting, Vice Mayor Jan Devereux said that “regardless” of whether Arthur Sackler was involved, there remains “immediate reason” to “condemn” the fact the museum bears his name.
“A Sackler name is not welcome on a building,” she said.
Earlier this month, Tufts University announced it would remove the Sackler name from five facilities and programs on its campus. Though several international cultural institutions, such as the Guggenheim Museum and the Louvre, had previously announced that they would either strip the Sackler name from their walls or refuse future Sackler family donations, Tufts became the first university to take similar action.
University spokesperson Christopher M. Hennessy declined to comment on the council’s actions.
In an email sent to members of the council and City Manager Louis A. DePasquale, Thomas J. Lucey, who serves as Harvard’s community relations director for Cambridge, wrote that Arthur Sackler donated to the construction of the original building that held the Arthur M. Sackler Museum. He also reiterated that Sackler died before OxyContin was developed.
“The Arthur M. Sackler Foundation does not fund the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard,” he wrote.
In an emailed statement provided by Wootten, Jillian Sackler wrote that her husband “had nothing to do” with and “did not profit” from the manufacturing or marketing of OxyContin. She added that none of her husband’s work went to “opioids or to deceptive medical marketing.”
“It deeply saddens me to witness Arthur being blamed for actions taken by his brothers and other OxySacklers,” she wrote.
Monday's council meeting — the final of 2019 and the current council term — also marked the end of the line for Devereux and Councilor Craig A. Kelley. Devereux opted not to run for another term, and Kelley was defeated in November's council election. The pair will be replaced by incoming councilors Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler and Patricia M. “Patty” Nolan ’80.
In their closing remarks, Devereux and Kelley thanked councilors and city staff.
"Each of you has been incredibly diligent, you've brought a lot of passion and intelligence and humor to the job,” Devereux said.
Kelley added that after 14 years on the council, he would remain invested and active in city matters.
“Vice Mayor Devereux, I don't know what the hell we'll do, but we'll do something fun after this,” he said.
—Staff writer Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.