The unexplained deaths of Canadian philanthropist and pharmaceutical supremo Bernard Sherman and his wife Honey, shocked Canada’s Jewish and wider community. Prominent high society figures, they were among the country’s most generous donors. Hospitals, schools and major Jewish charities including the JNF and United Jewish Appeal all benefited from the couple’s multi-million dollar donations, as did the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Centre and the international American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Financial and business success prompted a magnanimous sense of responsibility. Sherman, 75 at his death, aided disaster zones to the tune of over $50 million through a dedicated pharmaceutical foundation, and the couple had buildings named in their honour. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, hosted by the Shermans at a Liberal party fundraiser in 2015, tweeted “condolences to their family and friends and to everyone touched by their vision and spirit.”
Earlier this year, Sherman was named one of Canada’s most influential Jews and one of its richest men. In 1974, he founded Apotex, the Toronto-based drug giant that markets generic medicines around the world, and is now claimed to be the country’s largest pharmaceutical company. According to Forbes, he was the 12th wealthiest Canadian, with an estimated net worth of £2.7 billion at the time of his death.
But the couple wore their wealth lightly, and never flaunted it. Sherman had a passion for driving beaten-up cars. Linda Frum, a Canadian senator and close friend, expressing her shock at what she believed was a double murder, described them as being among the kindest and most beloved members of Canada’s Jewish community.
Born to a Jewish family in Toronto, Sherman demonstrated his academic prowess early. He was educated at Forest Hill Collegiate Institute and Toronto University, where he studied engineering science at the age of 16, possibly the youngest student to do so. He graduated with the highest honours in his class, receiving the university’s Governor General’s Award for his thesis. This was followed by a PhD in astrophysics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1967. A clue to his future entrepreneurial skills came while still a student working for his uncle, Louis Lloyd Winter, at his Empire Laboratories. It was at the time Canada’s largest wholly owned pharmaceutical company, and Sherman kept watch on the operations while his uncle travelled abroad.
In an ironic prefiguration of his own future tragedy, both his Aunt Beverley and Uncle Louis died 17 days apart, leaving four young orphans, Paul Timothy, Jeffrey Andrew, Kerry Joel Dexter and Dana Charles. After finishing his PhD, Sherman bought the Empire Group of Companies from the family estate.
Before the purchase, Empire had been the first to secure the compulsory rights to manufacture Hoffmann-La Roche’s Valium (diazepam), and Saccharin, among others. Sherman had formed a limited company, Sherman and Ulster Ltd, with his high-school friend Joel Ulster, and offered five per cent equity to each of the four children. In 1970, Sherman jointly invested in New York’s Barr Laboratories, became its largest shareholder and the company’s president. He controlled some 33 per cent of Barr’s stock by 2000 and the company won first rights to manufacture generic versions of Eli Lilly’s Prozac.
In January 1972, Sherman and Ulster Ltd sold Empire Laboratories to the Canadian operations of International Chemical and Nuclear (ICN) of California. One year later, he launched Apotex with former Empire Laboratories’ staff and incorporated the company in 1974.
But in 2011 a legal imbroglio broke out. The Winter children’s estate sued Sherman and Royal Trust for failing to pay due royalties, or provide the promised equity in the businesses. The cousins sought a 20 per cent interest in Apotex or damages of $1 billion, but in September 2017 an Ontario Supreme Court threw out their case. The children threatened to appeal but no appeal had been launched by the time of the Shermans’ deaths.
It was not the only controversy Sherman had to face. In 2015, he was investigated for improperly fundraising Justin Trudeau on the eve of his election as prime minister.
In 2016, Apotex employed more than 10,000 people selling over 250 products to 115-plus countries. In 2012, he stepped down as Apotex chief executive remaining as executive chairman. Despite his business and charitable commitments, Sherman also found time to write a book: The Invention of the Jew: Jewish-American Education Novels, 1916-1964.
He and his wife Honey, aged 70 at her death, and also a graduate of Toronto University, had four children. They donated a record $50 million to the United Jewish Appeal, and funded additional buildings to the Baycrest Centre for the elderly, among other Toronto community centres. They were generous donors to the United Way, a health-and-education based charity and, from 2007, became major fundraisers to disaster areas. The daughter of two Holocaust victims and born in a displaced person’s camp, Honey Sherman has been described as the more socially-outgoing of the couple. She was on the board of several hospitals, charities and Jewish organisations, including Mount Sinai’s Women’s Auxiliary, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and an international American distribution committee.
On December 15, police were called to the couple’s £4.3 million mansion in an affluent Toronto suburb, after estate agents appointed to sell the property found them dead. The cause of death was strangulation, according to an autopsy. At the time of going to press police were awaiting a post-mortem. Friends and family vociferously urged police to conduct a “thorough, intensive and objective criminal investigation into the deaths”, rejecting reports of investigations into a possible murder-suicide.
In a family statement, they said: “Our parents shared an enthusiasm for life and commitment to their family, and community, totally inconsistent with the rumours regrettably circulated in the media as to the circumstances surrounding their deaths. There are no words for the grief we all feel.”
Tributes came from Avi Benlolo, president and CEO of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, and from Eli Rubinstein, national director of March of the Living. The couple are survived by their four children, Jonathon, Lauren, Alexandra and Kaelen and several grandchildren.
Bernard ‘Barry’ Sherman: born February 2, 1942. Died December 15, 2017