Empire of Pain Book Summary - Empire of Pain Book explained in key points
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Empire of Pain summary

Patrick Radden Keefe

The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty

4.6 (53 ratings)
19 mins
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    Empire of Pain
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    Chapter 1: Arthur and his kid brothers.

    From a young age, Arthur Sackler was a hustler. In high school he worked for the school paper where he sold ads on commission. He had so many side gigs that he had to give some over to his younger brothers, Mortimer and Raymond.

    He kept it up in college, too, graduating in the middle of the Great Depression with enough money to buy his parents a grocery store in Brooklyn. He then enrolled in medical school at NYU and took a full course load while maintaining extracurriculars and several jobs.

    After med school, Arthur would work all day at a state psychiatric hospital, and then spend evenings and weekends working for a medical advertising agency, called William    McAdams. Arthur quickly scaled the ranks there. He was named President after just two years, and eventually bought the firm. 

    Being a doctor himself, Arthur’s ad campaigns appealed directly to physicians. He placed them in medical journals, and sent literature to doctors’ offices. He also enlisted prominent doctors, and sometimes fake ones, to sell his products. Over his career, Arthur would transform pharmaceutical advertising–colleagues claimed he really invented the wheel. 

    One drug in particular helped make Arthur rich. His advertising campaigns for Valium, a minor tranquilizer produced by the company Roche, focused on convincing physicians to prescribe it for just about any ailment, major or minor. For years it was the most prescribed drug in America.

    Mortimer and Raymond would also become doctors. Still, Arthur couldn’t stop thinking of them as his kid brothers.

    He would get them both jobs at the psychiatric hospital (where he continued to work). The three of them would eventually start a research center there that explored drug treatment options that could replace shock therapy and lobotomies, which were standard practices at the time. 

    Then in 1952, Arthur decided to purchase a pharmaceutical company for his kid brothers. It was a tiny company, but it had a good, patrician name: Purdue Frederick.

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    What is Empire of Pain about?

    Empire of Pain (2021) follows the rise and fall of the elusive Sacklers, the billionaire family behind Purdue Pharma. Its blockbuster drug, OxyContin, was aggressively marketed as safe, but would go on to spur a devastating opioid crisis that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Yet the Sacklers’ fortress of lawyers, political connections and a philanthropic name would, time and again, protect them from responsibility.

    Who should read Empire of Pain?

    • Current affairs enthusiasts
    • Lovers of family dynasty dramas
    • Anyone wanting to understand the opioid crisis

    About the Author

    Patrick Radden Keefe is an award winning journalist and staff writer at The New Yorker. In 2014 he received the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. He has written several books, including the previous bestseller Say Nothing (2018)

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