John Stith Pemberton (July 8, 1831 – August 16, 1888) was an American pharmacist, and is best known for being the inventor of Coca-Cola.
Pemberton was born July 8, 1831, in Knoxville, Crawford County, Georgia. His father was James Clifford Pemberton, brother of Confederate General John Clifford Pemberton. Pemberton was raised in Rome, Georgia. He entered the Reform Medical College of Georgia in Macon, and in 1850, at the age of nineteen, he was licensed to practice pharmacy. Shortly thereafter, he met Ann Eliza Clifford Lewis of Columbus, Georgia, known to her friends as “Cliff,” who had been a student at the Wesleyan College in Macon. In 1853, he married Miss Lewis in Columbus. Their only child, Charles Ney Pemberton, was born in 1854. They lived in the Pemberton House in Columbus. At that time, Pemberton became the owner of two slaves. The 1860 Slave Schedule lists him as the owner of one 22 year old female slave.
Invention of Coca-Cola
In April 1865 while serving as lieutenant colonel of the Confederate Army’s 12th Cavalry Regiment, Georgia State Guard, Pemberton was wounded in the Battle of Columbus, Georgia. He was slashed across the chest by a saber, and like many wounded veterans, he became addicted to the morphine used to ease the pain. He was a pharmacist and as such searched for a cure for his addiction. In 1866, in Columbus, Georgia, he started working on painkillers that would serve as opium-free alternatives to morphine. His first was “Dr. Tuggle’s Compound Syrup of Globe Flower (cephalanthus oxidentalis).” He next began experimenting with coca and coca wines, eventually creating his own version of Vin Mariani, containing kola nut and damiana, which he called Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. According to Coca-Cola historian, Phil Mooney, Pemberton’s world-famous soda was “created in Columbus, Georgia and carried to Atlanta.”
With public concern about the drug addiction, depression and alcoholism among war veterans, and “neurasthenia”, as well as among “highly-strung” Southern women, Pemberton’s medicine was advertised as particularly beneficial for “ladies, and all those whose sedentary employment causes nervous prostration”.
In 1886, when Atlanta and Fulton County enacted temperance legislation, Pemberton found himself forced to produce a non-alcoholic alternative to his French Wine Coca. Pemberton relied on Atlanta druggist Willis Venable to test and help him perfect the recipe for the beverage, which he formulated by trial and error. With Venable’s assistance, Pemberton worked out a set of directions for its preparation that eventually included blending the base syrup with carbonated water by accident when trying to make another glass. Pemberton decided then to sell it as a fountain drink rather than a medicine. Frank Mason Robinson came up with the name “Coca-Cola” for the alliterative sound, which was popular among other wine medicines of the time. Although the name quite clearly refers to the two main ingredients, the controversy over its cocaine content would later prompt The Coca-Cola Company to state that the name was “meaningless but fanciful.” Robinson also hand wrote the Spencerian script on the bottles and ads. Pemberton made many health claims for his product, touting it as a “valuable brain tonic” that would cure headaches, relieve exhaustion and calm nerves, and marketed it as “delicious, refreshing, pure joy, exhilarating,” and “invigorating.”
Pemberton sells the business
Soon after Coca-Cola hit the market, Pemberton fell ill and nearly bankrupt. Sick and desperate, he began selling rights to his formula to his business partners in Atlanta. Part of his motivation to sell actually derived from his expensive continuing morphine addiction. Pemberton had a hunch that his formula “some day will be a national drink,” so he attempted to retain a share of the ownership to leave to his son. But Pemberton’s son wanted the money. So in 1888 Pemberton and his son sold the remaining portion of the patent to Asa Candler.
John Pemberton died at age 57 in August 1888, poor, sick, addicted to morphine, and a victim of stomach cancer. His body was returned to Columbus, Georgia, where he was laid to rest at Linwood Cemetery. His gravemarker is engraved with symbols showing his Confederate military service and his pride in being a Freemason. His son continued to sell an alternative to his father’s formula, but only six years later Charles Pemberton died, an opium user himself.
John Pemberton in popular culture
In 2010, the Coca-Cola Company paid tribute to Pemberton as a key character within an advertising campaign called “Secret Formula”. Centered on the secret ingredients of Coca-Cola, imagery related to Pemberton was used to make people more aware of Coke’s history and mythology.
In 2013, Pemberton was portrayed by Bill Hader in the “Atlanta” episode of Comedy Central’s Drunk History, created by Derek Waters.