Hidden in Smoke: A Forgotten History of Opium, Opioids, and Tufts

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On June 20, 1946, the last empress of China died in a prison cell alone, lying in a pool of her own bodily fluids. Outside, an audience of civilians and soldiers gathered to mock Empress Wanrong (婉容) as she shrieked for opium, convulsing in withdrawal with fever, nausea, diarrhea, and hallucinations. Her captors, a group of Mao Zedong’s Communist forces, had turned her into “a grotesque tourist attraction,” “an object lesson in the evils of opium addiction,” and a symbol of “Imperial decadence,” according to the book The Opium Wars. The death of Empress Wanrong is a refraction of the violence the British Empire’s global drug trade wrought on the Indian bodies coerced to produce opium, and the Chinese bodies coerced to consume it across lines of class, gender, and geography. By the end of the 19th century, 90 million people—30 percent of China’s population—were addicted to opium. The UN Office on Drugs and Crimes has called the Chinese opium epidemic “the largest substance abuse problem the world has ever faced.” And Tufts University is a beneficiary of this faraway epidemic—a story sealed in the silent mortar of Cabot Intercultural Center.

In the past year, Tufts has been associated with a more recent epidemic: the American opioid crisis. The Tufts Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences is named after the Sacklers, owners of Purdue Pharma L.P., which created the opioid-based drug OxyContin. The Sacklers are credited with developing the aggressive marketing strategies that eventually encouraged the over-prescription of OxyContin. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, around 8 to 12 percent of patients prescribed an opioid for chronic pain develop an opioid abuse disorder, and 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused a prescription opioid. The casualties and costs of over-prescription are high: the Center for Disease Control estimates that 115 people die per day from opioid overdose in the United States, and a study suggests that the country’s annual cost of prescription opioid misuse is $78.5 billion.

In light of the Sacklers’ implication in the opioid crisis, the Tufts Daily published an editorial in November 2017 suggesting that “Tufts should change the name of its biomedical school to better reflect the mission of the institution.” In April 2018, an article in the Observer made a similar suggestion, asking, “What will be the legacy of the Sackler School, and of Tufts, if they continue to uplift this name?” Yet a historical investigation into the connections between Tufts and the Chinese opium epidemic reveals that the Sackler drug empire is not the first to receive nomenclatural sanctuary at this University, raising new questions about names throughout campus, including the Cabot Center.

The Cabot Center was completed in 1981, and named in recognition of a $1 million donation from American career diplomat, John Moors Cabot. Two years after Empress Wanrong’s death, John Moors Cabot arrived in Shanghai as U.S. Counsel General. China would be a seemingly unimportant blip in Cabot’s illustrious career as an ambassador to Sweden, Columbia, Brazil, and Poland, as an Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs appointed by President Eisenhower, and a lecturer in the hallowed halls of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. But China was hardly insignificant for Cabot, whose family wealth was derived from a number of exploitative sources, including the Chinese opium epidemic.

John Moors Cabot hailed from the legendary Cabot family, members of an insular, aristocratic clan of old Boston money known as the “Boston Brahmins.” Apart from the Cabots, the Boston Brahmins consisted of prominent names such as Lowell (like the city), Coolidge (like the corner), and Winthrop (like the street). During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Brahmins consolidated their financial and cultural power. They sent their children to Harvard College. They funded institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Boston Symphony Orchestra. And they funded these institutions by engaging together in multinational businesses like the transatlantic slave trade and the Chinese opium trade. After the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts in 1836, opium became the most profitable commodity for Boston merchants, who joined the British opium trade. In his book, Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, James Bradley described the Cabots as central to the creation of Boston’s opium empire, and as one of the most influential families amongst the Brahmins. This notion is captured in a poem by John Collins Bossidy, titled “A Boston Toast”:


“This is good old Boston,

the land of the bean and the cod,

Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots,

and the Cabots talk only to God.”


The Cabots and other Brahmins have constructed their image as God-talking Bostonians in part by keeping their wealth and name discreet, even as they made massive donations to the city’s institutions. The Cabot name at Tufts, then, is a rare sighting of the opium heritage that permeates familiar spaces across Boston.

Jingya Guo (MA’18), who studied Chinese history at Tufts, reflected on this connection, saying, “I walked by the Cabot Center everyday, but I never knew its opium history.” Menglan Chen (A’16), a Masters student in East Asian Studies at Harvard University, added that she often comes across travel journals that describe the decrepitude of opium addicts throughout China in her own research, but she too was unaware of the Cabot connection. “I am not surprised that the Cabots were involved with the opium trade, but I am surprised by how we have forgotten that history,” Chen said.

If the Sackler name were to be changed, Tufts would be forced to contend with the forgotten history of the Cabot name as well. Opium was consumed in China long before the Cabots arrived, and opioid abuse had hit America before the Sacklers created OxyContin (the drug heroin, for instance, was first marketed as a non-addictive, over-the-counter pharmaceutical). Yet both the Cabots and the Sacklers participated in creating and supplying large-scale markets of addiction, and then donated their earnings to institutions like Tufts.

Priyanka Padidam (A’18), who co-wrote the April Observer article on the Sackler School, discussed the importance of interrogating names such as Cabot and Sackler for initiating difficult conversations on campus. In an email interview she wrote, “The question of changing the name necessarily leads to bigger questions about where money comes from and goes within the university, and what and who benefits from the university’s money.”

But little concrete action has been taken around changing the Sackler name since the family’s involvement in the opioid crisis was discussed in Esquire, the New Yorker, the Tufts Daily, and the Observer. Some members of the University have been involved with cross-University petitions, such as the “Anti-Sackler Medical and Biomedical Petition,” currently signed by 28 members of the Tufts University School of Medicine (TUSM).

Shreya Bhatia (A’17) is a second-year student at TUSM, where she attends classes such as “Addiction Medicine” in a building named Sackler. “Ironically,” she said, “a lot of the care we are giving is to people who have opioid dependence that is connected to the Sacklers.” But Bhatia is skeptical about what changing the name will accomplish unless Tufts “both officially and unofficially acknowledges this issue” by raising awareness about the University’s connections to the opium trade and crisis. “If some first-year medical student comes to this building and it has a new name, but they don’t know that the money for it came from the Sacklers, what is the point?”

Ayesha Jalal, a Professor of History at Tufts, also voiced concern that changing names could allow the University to erase, instead of raise awareness about its entanglement with histories of imperial capitalism. “Why do we have to disguise the awkward truth?” she asked.

Renaming spaces would also require judging the past by the moral standards of the present, which Art History Professor Andrew McClellan called “tricky business.” He noted, “If we start going down that road, we have to go down it completely. We can’t cherry-pick which moral issues we care about, because that creates a kind of myopia that doesn’t serve us in the end.” If we wish to change the Sackler or Cabot name, he argued, then we must investigate history systematically, and change the name of the very land on which Tufts sits to honor that it was stolen from the Wampanoag people.

Other faculty and students interviewed unanimously agreed that renaming individual cases such as Sackler or Cabot has important symbolic value, but by itself this would never be enough. Professor of History Kris Manjapra argued that names such as Sackler and Cabot are only symptoms of “the troubling ways in which the familiar is steeped in historical forms of domination, dispossession, structural racism, and inequality.”

“If the problem is a social problem, how should our solution be a social solution?” he asked. “Renaming must have social transformation below it.” Senior Ria Mazumdar, a member of the Left Unity Project (LUP) and South Asian Political Action Committee (SAPAC), suggested that this “social transformation” requires educating and re-educating the campus about its history, its implications for the present, and “communicating to students the gravity of the issue at hand.”

Engaging with the “gravity of the issue” reveals the disturbing depth of institutional amnesia. Through the 18th and 19th centuries, the Chinese government tried desperately to enforce legal measures to curb the opium epidemic. Yet the trade was too profitable, both for the Chinese middlemen who evaded the law, and for the foreign traders who continued to sell opium in the name of “free trade.” As Jalal said, “Capitalism has always been disguised through the civilizational mission.” The liberal ideology of “free trade” propounded by East India Company servants, like John Stuart Mill, justified the opium trade as a sort of economic civilizational mission that brought Adam Smith’s “hand of God” to the “Orient.” If it is ironic that a biomedical school is named after a family imbricated in a national health crisis, it is also ironic that a school of law and diplomacy is housed in a building named after a family that blatantly disregarded the sovereignty of the 19th-century Chinese state.

Even for the purposes of historical re-education, institutional introspection, and redressing violent pasts and presents, the University is unlikely to change the Sackler or Cabot name. Patrick Collins, Executive Director of Public Relations at Tufts, justified the University’s decision by noting that the Sackler gifts were given “more than a decade before OxyContin was introduced to the marketplace.” Just as the Sackler gift to Tufts cannot be linked directly to OxyContin, the Cabot gift cannot be linked directly to the opium money made more than a century earlier.

Still, temporal arguments are not the institution’s primary reason for keeping the name. Collins noted that the Sackler School’s name, in fact, can never be contractually changed, as “naming opportunities can be and often are governed by a legal agreement… [that] can require that a name be retained in perpetuity, as in this case.” Collins also declined my request to see the total size of Cabot donations to Tufts “out of respect for donors’ privacy, and in accordance with our donor and alumni privacy policies.” Tufts’ capacity to protect the Sackler and Cabot names, even in the face of the community’s desire to interrogate them, raises a more difficult question: is the problem the individual names that universities contain, and the sources of wealth they represent, or is it the structure of universities themselves?

Though the University is supposed to teach its students to approach the world analytically, the institution itself is rarely the subject of this critical inquiry. Jalal said, “We are the privileged who have been put into this space, and we don’t question that privilege. We take it as a given and whitewash it, even though we are the ones who are supposed to question the world.” Junior Desmond Fonseca, who is majoring in History and Africana Studies, said, “I think the first step of organizing is always education, but that education cannot come solely from the University, which is invested not in knowledge production to overthrow capitalism, but to sustain it.”

Professor Manjapra also noted the importance of investigating history for campus activism that seeks to reform the University’s structural entanglement with imperial capitalism, drawing attention to the unified project of activism and scholarship. “Activism and study are both part of the pursuit we all share—which is to make the social a just place, to address the injustice that structures it, and sometimes, to completely reimagine what social relations can be,” he said. “It is not a choice to be an activist or a scholar.”

Despite the University’s imbrication in the structures it claims to deconstruct, there are a number of resources at Tufts to support students who wish to investigate the University’s history on their own terms. Pamela Hopkins, the Public Services and Outreach Archivist at the Tufts Archives, located in the ground floor of Tisch Library, said that “people who are working on specific issues or concerns, either on campus or locally, are likely to find things in the archives that could help them take a new approach, that might provide lessons learned to strategize with community leaders, or allow them to show documentation of structures in the past.” History Professor Virginia Drachman, who teaches a course titled “Tufts in American History” added that “Tufts is not immune to history… Students who brought their values and expectations to campus sometimes clashed with administrators who had different goals.”

She encourages students to investigate those intersections. “There is so much to find out hidden away in the archives—accessible to anyone with a curiosity.”

As a brief historical examination of the Cabot Intercultural Center reveals, Tufts can never be two centuries removed from the opium trade, nor 7,000 miles from the prison cell in which Empress Wanrong descended through withdrawal into death. We are intimately tied to seemingly distant places and pasts through our accepted names, constructed façades, concealed realities, hidden histories, and stories waiting to be found and acted upon.



One thought on “Hidden in Smoke: A Forgotten History of Opium, Opioids, and Tufts

  1. Dear Tara Kola,

    Tufts? Add Yale!

    Dear Professor Blight

    Yale University Sterling Professor of History

    Dear Professor Blight,

    You quote French historian Marc Bloch:

    “Misunderstanding of the present is the inevitable consequence of ignorance of the past, but a man may wear himself out just as fruitlessly in seeking to understand the past if he is totally ignorant of the present.”

    You continue:

    “We are taught in our first graduate seminars to be dispassionate through archival research which we do. We learn how to write good long take-no-prisoner footnotes. Stay close to the umbilical cord of your evidence. Of course! Of course!This is what we do. We care about facts. We care about the truth.”

    Southern Symbols: Dr. David Blight, Speed Art Museum, Published on YouTube January 4, 2018, (16:30).

    If you feel that way, Professor Blight,
    you will surely want to address the previous letter “Sun Up At The Crossroads”.

    Just as Associated Press, Time, Popular Mechanics reporter, Joe Pappalardo, documents in his Rabbit Holeinterview the rush to establish the “Official 911” narrative the day after 911, so the Philip Zelikow, Benjamin Rhodes, Janie Gorelick led 911 Commission rushed to memorialize at “Ground Zero” a fact pattern in free fall and widespread dispute.

    You say that “all memorials are local”. Really? Never imported?

    In fact, what Shelby Foote did, with his echo chambers assistant, Ken Burns, spinning the battlefield minutia predicated on the missing North/South power elite battle over the rail race to the Pacific and the China trade beyond was to guaranteed that people would wear themselves out chewing the bubble gum of endless battles and missing the bigger picture.

    That’s EXACTLY what happened after 911.

    When is Yale’s Sterling History Department going to polish the silver?


    William H. Carr
    Corpus Christi, Texas

    c: Lowell P. Wigglesworth

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