The Inventor of Coca-Cola was a Drug Addict who Died Penniless

In May 1886, John Stith Pemberton developed an early version of what would become Coca-Cola. He was a Confederate States Army veteran who suffered from a wound during the Battle of Columbus. The pharmacist began to experiment with painkillers to numb the chronic pain, which led to a morphine addiction. Despite being the inventor of one of the most popular soft drinks in the world, Pemberton died before seeing any of its success. 

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The Invention of Coca-Cola

John Stith Pemberton was born in Knoxville, Georgia, on July 8, 1831. He graduated from the Southern Botanical Medical College in 1859 and became a physician at age 19. His practice combined general medicine and surgery with his advanced knowledge of chemistry. He also got his pharmacist’s degree. His method included steam baths, herbs, and similar items to heal and enhance his treatments. He married Ann Eliza Clifford Lewis in 1853 and they had their only child, Charles Ney Pemberton, one year later.

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When the Civil War broke out in 1862, Pemberton enlisted in the Confederate army. In 1865, during the Battle of Columbus, a saber stabbed him in the abdomen and chest. He recovered but the pain was unbearable. He turned to morphine, and like many patients forced to treat severe pain with substances, he became addicted. [1]

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In 1884, Pemberton used his pharmaceutical expertise to try to cure his morphine addiction. His first batch was called “Dr. Tuggle’s Compound Syrup of Globe Flower,” which active ingredient came from a toxic plant called buttonbush. Then, he created French Wine Coca, an early recipe of Coca-Cola, containing wine, cocaine, damiana, and cola leaves. The drink was advertised as a cure-all, from ailments like a bout of constipation to chronic diseases. French Wine Coca made people feel good, which is why it was touted as a tonic. But that’s not surprising, since alcohol enhances the effects of cocaine. It didn’t cure addiction but it was popular nonetheless.

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From Medicine to Fountain Drink

At the time, there was a huge industry for patent medicines. Medical research and treatments lacked the structure found today. Instead, people who claimed to have medical knowlege would sell their own concoctions marketed to cure different ailments that doctors couldn’t effectively treat. Like many pharmacists during this time period, Pemberton created patent medicines. But these medicines could contain harmful ingredients like arsenic or ingredients with no medicinal effect at all. As to be expected, these medicines were generally unhelpful, but this was the industry when an early version of Coca-Cola hit the shelves. [2]

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In 1886, with the upcoming Prohibition, he took the wine out of the recipe and created the first batch of Coca-Cola with his pharmacist friend Willis E. Venable. (It continued to have cocaine until the early 1900s.) They took the damiana out of the recipe and added cola nuts, which contained caffeine. They also swapped wine for sugar syrup.

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One day, Pemberton accidentally mixed the base syrup with carbonated water, but it was a good mistake. He decided to sell his concoction as a fountain drink instead of a medicine. It still came with all of its health claims to cure headaches, exhaustion, as well as a cure-all for nervous diseases. But it was also marketed as delicious, refreshing, and joy-bringing. [3]

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One of Pemberton’s partners in charge of marketing, Frank Mason Robinson, came up with the name Coca-Cola, after the two main ingredients, coca leaves and cola nuts. He also designed the iconic logo with its swirly calligraphy.

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The Tragic Life of John Stith Pemberton

However, despite all of the claims about the beverage’s curing effects, Pemberton remained in poverty due to his morphine addiction until he died in 1888 of stomach cancer. As he was falling fatally ill, he desperately sold the rights to his formula for $2,300 to Asa Griggs Candler, who founded the Coca-Cola company. He died at age 57 before seeing Coca-Cola’s success and he was buried in Columbus Georgia, in the Linwood Cemetery. 

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Sources

  1. “John Stith Pemberton, The Tragic Life of The Inventor of Coca-Cola.” National Geographic. JM Sadurni. April 27, 2022
  2. “Coca-Cola’s Creator Said the Drink Would Make You Smarter.” Smithsonian Magazine. Kat Eschner. March 29, 2017
  3. “Coca-Cola’s Uplifting Origin Story Leaves Out The Part About Its Morphine-Addicted Inventor.Business Insider. Aaron Taube. December 30, 2013
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