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Family Behind Robins Company Out of the Business Now

April 2, 1990

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ It once was known as the Fortune 500 drugmaker that soothed millions of throats with Robitussin cough syrup, coated dried lips with Chap Stick balm and gave generously to charities and higher education.

Today A. H. Robins still makes Robitussin, Chap Stick and other remedies, but it’s owned by another company after a long bout with bankruptcy court. To many women its name is synonymous with cruel stinginess, all tied to one of the most notorious products ever sold, the Dalkon Shield birth control device.

The family that formerly ran the company still has considerable wealth. But it keeps a low profile, partly because of the ordeal created by the Dalkon Shield, which maimed thousands of women in one of the worst product liability cases in history. The device no longer is sold.

As the leading family member said when he surrendered the company to the new owners late last year, ″Some of the unhappiest people I’ve known are people who have a lot of money.″

That surrender was one of the most traumatic moments in the life of E. Claiborne Robins, a millionaire whose grandfather, Albert Hartley Robins, founded the company as a three-employee apothecary shop.

E. Claiborne Robins took over the business in 1933, parlaying it through hard work into one of the largest U.S. pharmaceutical companies.

As the business prospered, Robins and his relatives became known for their philanthropy to higher education with gifts to the University of Richmond. Its graduates include Robins, 79, and his son, E. Claiborne Robins Jr., 46.

The senior Robins and other members have donated millions of dollars to the university’s endowment, including a $50 million gift in 1969 that at the time was the largest personal gift ever made to a private U.S. college.

Women seeking payment for Dalkon Shield injuries have a different view of the Robins name. Many argue that despite immense public and legal pressure, the company erected obstacle after obstacle to prevent victims from receiving compensation money.

Earlier this month, 85,000 Dalkon Shield claimants, the last of the 200,000 eligible for redress, were mailed packets explaining options for receiving payment for injuries. Some had used the device more than 15 years ago.

″They made it very difficult for the women they injured to get compensation,″ said Linda Hightower, director of the Dalkon Shield Victims Association in Atlanta and herself a former Dalkon Shield user.

In the victims’ eyes, Robins has never provided a simple, direct public apology, not to mention a sympathetic attitude toward compensation. E. Claiborne Robins has said he doesn’t consider money important and that any amount above what’s needed to live comfortably ″means nothing really.″

Yet money, or lack of it, has shaped his life.

Two years after Robins was born in 1910, his father died, leaving to his mother the responsibility of holding together the family business founded in 1878.

Robins worked his way through the University of Richmond by stacking books at the city library for 25 cents an hour. He graduated at the height of the Depression in 1931 and enrolled in pharmacy school at the Medical College of Virginia, where he graduated with honors in 1933.

″It was a case of financial necessity,″ he once said of attending summer school to finish pharmacy college early.

Later Robins borrowed $2,000 to take over the family business and went on the road selling pharmaceuticals. His work and salesmanship turned the company into a multimillion-dollar enterprise by the time the Dalkon Shield was added to Robins’ product line in 1971.

Before long, however, the corporation began hearing complaints from doctors and women who used the IUD. Some users suffered miscarriages; some became sterile. A few died.

As concerns multiplied about the safety of the Dalkon Shield, the company yanked it from the market. The same year - 1974 - Robins began to have health problems of his own, suffering two heart attacks. He stepped down the next year as president of the company but stayed on as chairman of the board.

″One thing I discovered is that many tasks you regard as important, when it comes to the case of your being here or not being around, seem not so important after all,″ Robins said in a rare 1982 interview.

Both Robins and his son, who became president of the company in 1977, have refused numerous requests for interviews in recent years as they watched a wave of lawsuits seeking damages from Dalkon Shield injuries tear at the foundation of their business.

In 1985, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. Last Dec. 15 the case ended, a $2.5 billion trust fund was established to compensate Dalkon Shield claimants, and A.H. Robins was taken over by the American Home Products Corp. of New York. Neither Robins has a role in the business anymore.

They still came out of the 4 1/2 years of bankruptcy proceedings with personal fortunes intact. Forbes magazine has reckoned the family holdings are worth $325 million.

Nonetheless, the Dalkon Shield legacy perhaps has become an indelible part of the Robins family reputation, ex-users say. Lawyers for Dalkon Shield victims have long charged that the IUD was rushed to market without adequate testing and that attempts were made to mask its flaws.

A federal judge once accused E.C. Jr. and two other company executives of creating ″monstrous mischief″ with ″an instrument of death, mutilation and disease.″

″You have taken the bottom line as your guiding beacon and the low road as your route,″ U.S. District Judge Miles Lord of Minneapolis intoned. ″This is corporate irresponsibility at its meanest.″

The Robinses and their aides never were charged with criminal negligence in the Dalkon Shield case, however. The younger Robins said later that Lord had committed ″gross abuse of judicial discretion and power.″

Friends of the family are reluctant to talk about the father and son, but some say privately that they were more distressed at losing the company than at the high price of the Dalkon Shield settlement.

The men said in a joint farewell letter to employees that they would remember ″shared times both difficult and rewarding. We have been tested, and the results achieved in spite of those difficult times are witness to what good people can accomplish.″

Still, the history of the Dalkon Shield has affected what the elder Robins once called the most satisfying accomplishments of his career.

″One has been the joy of watching the company grow,″ he said. ″And there’s the fact that you’ve made some contribution to public health.″

End adv for Sunday April 1.

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