John Pemberton, Creator of Coca Cola: Facts & Stories You Didn't Know
There are few products as American as Coca-Cola. The soft drink brand is so deeply ingrained in American culture that it's hard to imagine a time before its existence, but it's only been a little over 130 years since a pharmacist in Atlanta named John Pemberton created his secret formula. He was actually trying to produce a medicinal tonic, but while he failed at developing the next greatest wonder drug, Pemberton did make a crisp, delicious beverage. Here is the story of John Pemberton, Coca-Cola, and good, old American ingenuity.
Why Did Pharmacists Mix Soft Drinks In The First Place?
A century ago, nearly every corner drugstore has a soda fountain. It's how root beer got so big, and it's how Dr Pepper got started. Patrons sat at the long counter to sip one of the various fizzy, sweet concoctions mixed up by the pharmacist and served by the soda jerk. But why were pharmacists even involved in the soda business in the first place?
It has to do with chemistry and the medicinal properties of carbonated water. Long ago, mineral water infused with carbon dioxide was thought to have healing properties, so carbonated water (or soda water) was prescribed to ease digestive problems, headaches, fatigue, and more. Since soda was viewed as a medicine, it was only natural for pharmacists to dabble in soda beverage experimentation. John Pemberton was one such pharmacist.
Who Was John Pemberton?
A native Georgian, John Pemberton studied medicine at the Reform Medical College of Georgia, specializing in chemistry. In 1850, he opened his own medical practice, married his sweetheart, bought a house, and had a son. He received accolades for his medical work and opened a pharmacy. Life seemed perfect for Pemberton until the Civil War broke out.
Wounded In The War
In May 1862, John Pemberton joined the Confederate army as a first lieutenant and founding member of the Third Georgia Cavalry Battalion. On Easter 1865, when Pemberton defended the city of Columbus, Georgia from the invading Union troops, he suffered several injuries that changed his life, for better and for worse.
Pemberton, The Addict
The wounds John Pemberton suffered in the Civil War caused him considerable pain for the rest of his life. To cope, Pemberton initially used morphine, but fearing addiction as his tolerance rose, he soon switched to cocaine. That's not a joke: As a pharmacist, Pemberton was keenly aware of the addictive properties of morphine, but cocaine was a socially acceptable drug at the time. He might as well have been taking aspirin.
Coca-Cola, A Medicinal Tonic?
Pemberton experimented with various medicinal tonics to ease his own pain and maybe sell to the patrons of his pharmacy, and eventually, he nailed down a winning formula. He mixed soda water, kola nuts, cocaine, and wine to create a beverage he first called Pemberton's French Wine Coca. If you're wondering if you skipped the part in the narrative where Pemberton immigrated to France, you're not going crazy: He was still in Georgia, but cocaine-infused wine was all the rage in France, and Pemberton intended to cash in on the gimmick.
Not long after, Pemberton replaced the wine with sugary syrup, and in 1903, cocaine was recognized as a strong narcotic and restricted. His beverage had become a distant cousin of his original creation, and with the new formula came a new name: Coca-Cola.
Pemberton's Other Creation
Coca-Cola wasn't the only innovation Pemberton's labs produced. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, he joined forces with fellow doctor Austin Walker to develop a line of products they hoped would include medicines, cosmetics, and even photographic darkroom chemicals, but only one of their products was a commercial success. It was a perfume called Sweet Southern Bouquet.
The Rise And Fall Of Pemberton
As Coca-Cola's success exploded in soda fountains across the state and then around the country, Pemberton's cocaine addiction caught up with him. On a downward spiral of mental and physical deterioration and desperate for money to fuel his addiction, Pemberton agreed to sell the rights to Coca-Cola to Asa Candler in 1888. Though he intended to stay on as the leader of the company, it was a short-lived plan.
John Pemberton died on August 16, 1888. The deal he struck with Candler left him penniless, his wife destitute, and his only son, Charley Pemberton, fighting to regain control of his father's company. Alas, Charley had inherited his father's addictive tendencies but not his business sense, and Candler eventually bought out Charley's share of the company. In 1894, Charley died of an opium overdose.
The Rise Of Coca-Cola
Under Asa Candler's leadership, Coca-Cola became the worldwide phenomenon that it is today. It is one of the most recognized brands in history, and the formula for Coca-Cola is one of the most closely guarded secrets in the business world.