Take a walk past the Ashmolean and in a minute you will find yourself on St. John Street. Immediately you are confronted with a dome-shaped building paying homage to a Classical style that the books within are concerned with. This is the Sackler Library, Oxford’s Classics library, the place frequented by Classicists only when in dire need of a book that can be found nowhere else and which is absolutely necessary for that week’s essay (I should know).
This unremarkable place holds a name which most students understand to be controversial. “Isn’t that the same name as that family that’s responsible for something dodgy?” one fresher remarks to their friend in hushed tones during their induction tour. “Something to do with the opioid crisis…” their friend likely retorts, before silence falls, the silence of the all-too-common acceptance of the dark history that enshrouds the names dotted around Oxford among its dreaming spires.
If you know nothing about the Sackler family, or if your knowledge stretches about as far as the short conversation I have just detailed, I would first start by insisting that you watch Hulu’s Dopesick (more on this later). For now, let me summarise. In 1996, Purdue Pharma, the Sackler’s pharmaceutical company, launched a supposedly revolutionary new product. The company claimed that OxyContin, a slow-release pain medication, would be less addictive than the opioids currently on the market. The company launched an aggressive marketing strategy with the goal of changing the prescription habits of doctors, and was successful in this due to its presentation of misleading data, and a re-direction of blame from the company to ‘abusers’, despite cases showing that those who used the drug in accordance with advice were the victims of overdose. The result? The opioid epidemic; in 2017, The New Yorker that, since 1999, an estimated 200,000 Americans have died as a result of overdoses related to OxyContin or other similar opioids.
This is where I urge you to stop whatever you might be binge-watching to turn your attention to Dopesick. It will answer the question no doubt on your lips: how the fuck could this happen? The show tells this devastating story in a thoughtful manner, taking you from the initial decisions made at the highest level within the family and the FDA, to the deployment of pharma reps nationwide to push sales to record highs, to the doctors convinced of the safety of this drug through manufactured data, to the very people who were the victims of these many layers of manipulation and system abuse.
It has always been shocking to me that a library in Oxford would bear such a name. As with many similar issues, the hopes of changing the name are always brushed away by fears that since the library was built with significant donations by the family, the removal might deter potential donors from similar philanthropic acts. I was about ready to believe that until recently. Reading the news that New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art would drop the Sackler name from the seven exhibition spaces that currently hold it assured me that things can change. So too did the statement made jointly by the museum and the family itself that they “believe this to be in the best interest of the Museum and the important mission that it serves.”
I believe that the University of Oxford too has an important mission as an establishment spear-heads discovery based on thorough investigation, something that is demonstrated by its role in the development of a vaccine to protect against COVID-19. This is jeopardised by the Sackler name on its buildings, a family that ignored and manipulated data, resulting in the very real consequence of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. One could argue that this is a naive statement, that the University is indebted to families like these and their donations, whether we like it or not. I think often people exploit the term naivety when they are afraid of doing the right thing. In a world like ours, it is so easy to do what is easy as opposed to what is right, and I will happily wear the label ‘naive’ if it means no one can ever call me ‘coward’. I urge Oxford to consider what message they are sending by their implicit endorsement that the naming of a library holds. It is no longer good enough to suggest that nothing can be done; the Met’s recent moves have shown quite the opposite, and Oxford only need now walk the path that has been laid out for them.
Artwork Credit: Ben Beechener.