John Pemberton

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John Pemberton
John Pemberton.jpg
John Stith Pemberton
Born (1831-07-08)July 8, 1831
Knoxville, Georgia, U.S.
Died August 16, 1888(1888-08-16) (aged 57)
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
Cause of death Stomach cancer
Resting place Linwood Cemetery, Columbus, Georgia, U.S.
Residence Pemberton House, Columbus, Georgia, U.S.
Education Reform Medical College of Georgia
Occupation Pharmacist
Known for inventor of Coca-Cola
Spouse(s) Ann Eliza Clifford Lewis
Children Charles Ney Pemberton
Parent(s) James Pemberton (father)
Martha L. Gant (mother)

John Stith Pemberton (July 8, 1831 – August 16, 1888) was an American pharmacist, and is best known for being the founder of Coca-Cola. In the 1860s he developed an early version of a beverage that would later become world famous as Coca-Cola, but sold his rights to the drink shortly before his death.


Pemberton was born July 8, 1831, in Knoxville, Georgia, and spent most of his childhood in Rome, Georgia. His parents were James C. Pemberton and Martha L. Gant. 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. They were married in Columbus in 1853. Their only child, Charles Ney Pemberton, was born in 1854. They lived in the Pemberton House in Columbus.[1][2][3]

During the American Civil War, Pemberton served in the Third Cavalry Battalion of the Georgia State Guard, which was at that time a component of the Confederate army. He achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Founding of Coca-Cola[edit]

In April 1865, Pemberton sustained a saber wound to the chest during the Battle of Columbus. He soon became addicted to the morphine used to ease his pain.[4][5][6]

In 1866, seeking a cure for his addiction, he began to experiment with painkillers that would serve as opium-free alternatives to morphine.[7][8][9] His first recipe was "Dr. Tuggle's Compound Syrup of Globe Flower", in which the active ingredient was derived from the buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)", a toxic plant which is common in Alaska.[10] He next began experimenting with coca and coca wines, eventually creating a recipe which contained extracts of kola nut and damiana, which he called Pemberton's French Wine Coca.[11][12]

According to Coca-Cola historian Phil Mooney, Pemberton's world-famous soda was "created in Columbus, Georgia and carried to Atlanta".[13] With public concern about the drug addiction, depression, and alcoholism among war veterans, and "neurasthenia", as well as among "highly-strung" Southern women,[14] Pemberton's medicine was advertised as particularly beneficial for "ladies, and all those whose sedentary employment causes nervous prostration".[15]

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.[16] Pemberton relied on Atlanta drugstore owner-proprietor Willis E. 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 glassful of the beverage.[clarification needed] 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[edit]

A sign in Knoxville, Georgia commemorating John Pemberton

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.[17] 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.[17] However, Pemberton's son wanted the money, so in 1888 Pemberton and his son sold the remaining portion of the patent to Asa Candler.


Grave of John Pemberton in Columbus, Georgia

John Pemberton died from stomach cancer at age 57 in August 1888. At the time of his death, he also suffered from poverty and addiction to morphine. His body was returned to Columbus, Georgia, where he was buried at Linwood Cemetery. His gravemarker is engraved with symbols showing his service in the Confederate army and his pride in being a Freemason. His son Charley continued to sell his father's formula, but only six years later Charles Pemberton died, an opium user himself.[18]

In popular culture[edit]

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.

Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers have an album track on their Know Your Enemy album called "Freedom of Speech Won't Feed My Children". The song, which could be viewed as a sarcastic anti-American rant, contains the line 'J.S. Pemberton saved our lives'.


  1. ^ George B. Griffenhagen, A Guide to Pharmacy Museums and Historical Collections in the United States and Canada, Amer. Inst. History of Pharmacy, 1999, pp. 23–24
  2. ^ Alice Cromie, Restored America: A Tour Guide: the Preserved Towns, Villages, and Historic City Districts of the United States and Canada, American Legacy Press, 1979, p. 135 [1]
  3. ^ Alice Cromie, Restored towns and historic districts of America: a tour guide, Dutton, 1979, p. 135
  4. ^ Richard Gardiner, "The Civil War Origin of Coca-Cola in Columbus, Georgia", Muscogiana: Journal of the Muscogee Genealogical Society (Spring 2012), Vol. 23: 21–24.
  5. ^ Dominic Streatfeild, Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography, Macmillan (2003), p. 80.
  6. ^ Richard Davenport-Hines, The Pursuit of Oblivion, Norton (2004), p. 152.
  7. ^ John McKay, It Happened in Atlanta (Morris Books, 2011), 36.
  8. ^ Jeremy Agnew, Alcohol and Opium in the Old West, 173.
  9. ^ Albert Jack, They Laughed at Galileo, 184
  10. ^ Columbus Enquirer, March 18, 1866
  11. ^ Dominic Streatfeild, meth: An Unauthorized Biography, Macmillan (2003), p. 80.
  12. ^ Richard Davenport-Hines, The Pursuit of Oblivion, Norton (2004), p. 152.
  13. ^ Tim Chitwood, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
  14. ^ John Shelton Reed, Minding The South, University of Missouri Press (2099), p.171.
  15. ^ American Soft Drink and the Company that Makes It, Basic Books: enlarged 2nd edition (2000), p.24.
  16. ^ "Is This the Real Thing? Coca-Cola's Secret Formula "Discovered" by This American Life –". 
  17. ^ a b "For God, Country and Coca-Cola". p. 34. 
  18. ^ Pendergrast, Mark (2000). "The tangled chain of title". For God, country, and Coca-Cola: the unauthorized history of the great American soft drink and the company that makes it (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books. pp. 34–46. ISBN 978-0465054688. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Schoenberg, B S (1988), "Coke's the one: the centennial of the 'ideal brain tonic' that became a symbol of America", South. Med. J. (published Jan 1988), 81 (1), pp. 69–74, PMID 3276011, doi:10.1097/00007611-198801000-00015 
  • King, M M (1987), "Dr. John S. Pemberton: originator of Coca-Cola", Pharmacy in history, 29 (2), pp. 85–9, PMID 11621277 
  • Hasegawa, Guy (March 1, 2000), "Pharmacy in the American Civil War", American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy, 57 (5), pp. 457–489, American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy 

External links[edit]