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The Tragic Story Behind The Invention Of Coca-Cola

1800s | April 28, 2017

Wendy Clark, Coca-Cola marketing executive, once wrote of the man who invented the famous beverage: “a pharmacist who wanted to create an elixir that would give people a moment of refreshment and uplift, a moment of happiness.”

Today's Coca-Cola brand message is indeed to “make the world happier,” but the real motivation behind its creation was a totally different story.

John Pemberton

The history of Coca-Cola begins in the late 19th century with a man named Dr. John Stith Pemberton, a chemist and a pharmacist who fought as a Confederate soldier in the American Civil War.

Before the war, Pemberton was a licensed practitioner of Thomsonian medicine, which employs the principles of botany and herbalism to rid the body of harmful toxins. Many looked at this form of medical practice with suspicion. Yet Pemberton still went on to successfully practice the trade before eventually earning a degree in pharmacy at a school in Philadelphia, shortly before the start of the Civil War in 1861.

During Pemberton’s time in the Army, at the Battle of Columbus in April 1865, he sustained a saber wound to the chest which almost killed him. Pemberton survived, but he was left to battle a crippling morphine addiction, which caretakers offered to him as a painkiller to treat his wounds.

From Addiction To Invention

Relying on the knowledge he had amassed over his professional years, John Pemberton set out in search of a cure for his addiction. He began experimenting with different herbs and plants, including the coca leaf, which is the raw material used in the production of cocaine.

By mixing coca leaves, wine, and kola nuts (in case that cocaine didn’t offer a big enough caffeine kick), Pemberton invented his first beverage - the Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. The drink, advertised as an anti-depressant, a painkiller, and an all-around aphrodisiac, worked to relieve the ails of Pemberton’s morphine addiction and was sold to the public, where it became almost immediate success.

Twenty years after its formulation, Atlanta County in Georgia, where Pemberton lived and established his business enterprise, announced that it was prohibiting the production, selling, or buying of alcohol. With the looming threat of nationwide Prohibition, removed the alcoholic ingredient from the drink’s recipe in 1886 and replaced the wine with a sugary syrup.

Working with his longtime friend Willis E. Venable, the duo rebranded the item Coca-Cola, which they intended to be used for medical purposes had they not accidentally added carbonated water to the mixture. Instead of scrapping the idea altogether, they marketed it as a refreshing soft drink.

While Coke would go on to become a global success, Pemberton didn’t fare so well. As there is no known cure for addiction, his morphine morphine habit returned, an addiction that cost him his life’s savings as well as his health. Additionally, the sudden rebranding of the medicinal elixir as a refreshment beverage didn’t initially went well. This forced Pemberton to sell the rights to his invention to a number of business partners just to make ends meet.

John Pemberton died of stomach cancer in 1888, broke and in the grips of addiction. He left his fortune, which at that time consisted only of his remaining shares in the Coca-Cola company, to his only son, Charles. Charles, a morphine addict himself, would die a mere six years after his father. Both Pembertons missed out on the tremendous popularity and success Coca-Cola would see the world over, by several years.

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