Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe - review by Joanna Walters

Joanna Walters

Pills & Patronage

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty


Picador 560pp £20 order from our bookshop

The Sackler name adorns the buildings of many elite arts and academic institutions, from the Metropolitan, Guggenheim and Smithsonian museums to Harvard, Yale and Oxford universities, Tate Modern, the V&A and the Louvre. It even appears in a stained-glass window at Westminster Abbey. That’s what hundreds of millions of dollars of philanthropy buys you. Such money has also earned members of this elusive family access to refined circles, mansions and various top honours. One museum director has likened the Sacklers to the Medici in 15th-century Florence, whose patronage of the arts helped give rise to the Renaissance.

What the billionaire Sacklers disclose only sotto voce when they are waltzing at charity galas or opening a gallery, if at all, is that they earned their fortune from the prescription painkiller OxyContin. It’s a legal narcotic derived from the opium poppy, twice as powerful as morphine, and it revolutionised the treatment of pain in the United States after it was launched in 1996.

Unfortunately, the drug was so ruthlessly and deviously marketed for the masses that it became the object of widespread over-prescribing and is often blamed for being the catalyst of the US opioid crisis. This American public health catastrophe has spawned millions of addicts, from all walks of life, and has cost at least half a million lives.

If you are wondering how doctors and regulators were persuaded that something related to opium was safe to dole out for the treatment of quotidian pain and how intimately involved a core group of Sackler billionaires were in the whole process, the New Yorker staff writer

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

The Art of Darkness

Cambridge, Shakespeare

Follow Literary Review on Twitter