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5 Facts About Famous Pharmacist John Pemberton, Coca-Cola Inventor

JANUARY 29, 2015

Meghan Ross, Associate Editor


Most people know that pharmacies were the birthplaces of soda, but fewer know the background of the man who concocted Coca-Cola.

Here are 5 facts about druggist and chemist John Stith Pemberton, the brains behind 1 of America’s most recognized products.

1. Coca-Cola’s inventor served as an officer in the Civil War, and an injury eventually led to the creation of the carbonated drink.

Pemberton served in the Confederate army for almost the entire span of the Civil War, according to Richard Gardiner, whose article on Pemberton was published in the Journal of the Muscogee Genealogical Society. During a battle involving a sword fight on horseback with Union cavalry, Pemberton was shot and slashed by a saber. Before the war, Pemberton had served as a chemist and druggist, so he had access to morphine and became dependent upon it to ease his pain after the war.

2. Pemberton turned to cocaine as a substitute for morphine.

The Georgia man began to experiment with opium-free medicine, as he knew his morphine addiction was dangerous. When another doctor claimed he could cure opium habits with coca (cocaine), Pemberton devised his own concoction, which used coca leaves and kola nuts and was called French Wine Coca. A local prohibition law was enacted in 1886, so Pemberton was forced to remove the alcoholic element and his formula thus became Coca-Cola, according to Dominic Streatfeild, who authored Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography.

3. Pemberton’s bookkeeper gave helpful advertising advice.

It was Pemberton’s partner and bookkeeper, Frank M. Robinson, who suggested that the logo should employ 2 Cs in Coca-Cola instead of using Coca-Kola, for the kola nut extraction used in the formula. Robinson was also responsible for the handwriting of the logo, according to Coke’s website.

4. The pharmacist’s morphine addiction spurred him to sell the company.

Growing sick, Pemberton started to sell off parts of the company because he needed money to support not just his family, but also his morphine addiction, according to Mark Pendergrast’s book For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company that Makes It. Coke maintains on its website that Pemberton “never realized the potential of the beverage he created” and sold the company in pieces to various partners. Just before his death in 1888, Pemberton sold his remaining interest to a businessman named Asa Candler. 

5. Pemberton wanted his son to profit from the business, but Charley Pemberton turned out to be trouble.

Hoping his product could be passed down to his family, Pemberton sought to have his son Charley keep some ownership of the company. For a while, Pemberton maintained that his son had ownership of the name, while other companies were allowed to use the formula. Eventually, Candler bought out Charley, who was described as disagreeable and prone to drinking in Pendergrast’s book. According to several sources, Charley died in 1894 and was found with opium at his side, while Pemberton’s wife spent the rest of her life as a pauper.

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