Doctor Mortimer Sackler: Philanthropist who repaid many times over the debt he felt he owed Britain

Wednesday 31 March 2010 00:00
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In 2004, as Rector of Edinburgh University, I attended a ceremony at McEwan Hall, when, amid the pomp and splendour of the medical graduation, Dr Mortimer Sackler was received as a University Benefactor. Later, that evening, I had the pleasure of sitting next to his wife, Theresa, at dinner, in the lovely ambience of the Raeburn Room, where six of Sir Henry Raeburn's great portraits of University principals and Sir Walter Scott gaze down upon diners. Why is it, I ventured, that Mortimer, an American, should have been so generous to so many British institutions?

Mrs Sackler explained. Her husband, a New York Jew of mostly Russian origin, had in the mid-1930s found it impossible, in an atmosphere of anti-Semitism, to get a place in a New York medical school. Through friends in the long-established Jewish community in Glasgow, he was welcomed to stay with them and attend the (still mostly) non-residential University.

Six decades later, on the occasion of his receiving an Honorary Degree, Doctor of Science, in 2001, Sackler paid a moving tribute to the dour, severe, but basically kindly and certainly professionally distinguished and concerned Scottish medics who taught him during his first degree, and enabled him to go on to the Middlesex Hospital, where he graduated MD in 1944 amid V1 and V2 rockets. "Mortimer likes to repay your country which gave him his career."

He returned to a more benign atmosphere in New York, and in 1950 became a co-founder and Associate Director of the Creedmoor Institute for Psychobiologic Studies. In 1953 he began to devote his energies to the Purdue Frederick Company, and Purdue Pharma of Stamford, Connecticut. With his brother Raymond he established pharmaceutical research, manufacturing and distributing companies in Austria, Canada, Cyprus, Germany, Switzerland, the UK and the US. They thrived mightily.

Sackler's philanthropies, often in tandem with his brothers, Arthur and Raymond, have been huge and legion: the Sackler Library, Oxford University, and the Ashmolean Research Centre for the Humanities; the Sackler Laboratories, Reading University; the Sackler Musculoskeletal Research Centre, University College, London; the Sackler Institute of Pulmonary Pharmacology, King's College School of Medicine and Dentistry; all have benefited no less than his alma-mater universities, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The Sackler generosity to the arts has been significant in New York and Paris, particularly the Sackler Wing of Oriental Antiquities and the Louvre. Beneficiaries in Britain include the Serpentine Gallery, Dulwich Picture Gallery, the Tate, the Tate Modern, Sadlers Wells, the National Gallery in London and the National Gallery of Scotland. Two of the projects, nearest to the Sacklers' hearts, were the enlargement of the Jewish Museum in Berlin and helping the Westminster Abbey Trust restore the Henry VII Chapel. Perhaps this is appropriate since Sackler in his late 80s could easily have been mistaken for one of Hans Holbein's shrewd and successful sitters.

Professor Sir Timothy O'Shea, Vice Chancellor of Edinburgh University, told me, "The University is extremely proud of its association with Dr Sackler, and many students and staff have benefited hugely."

His wife Theresa was wont to give imaginative presents. In 2002 she went to an auction. Susan Rushton, speaking on behalf of the rose growers David Austin Roses, told me, "Uniquely, David Austen Roses had an auction for the naming of the magnificent shrub rose and climber which we had developed for its medium-pink colouring and strong fragrance. We were delighted that the winner should have been such a generous philanthropist to higher education."

Tam Dalyell

Mortimer Sackler, neurologist, biochemist, philanthropist: born New York City 7 December 1916; educated New York schools, University of Glasgow, MD 1944 Middlesex University School of Medicine; co-chairman, Purdue Pharma Inc 1952-2007; Member, Chancellor's Court of Benefactors, Oxford University from 1993; PhD Tel Aviv 1980; Officier, Légion d'Honneur 1997; honorary KBE 1999; Honorary Fellow, King's College, London 2001; married 1980 Theresa Rowling (one son, two daughters; and one son, three daughters, and one son deceased from previous marriages); died Switzerland 24 March 2010.

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