It’s difficult to imagine a world without Coca-Cola, the most popular soft drink on earth. Pharmacist John Stith Pemberton created the original formula on May 8, 1886. Born January 8, 1831 in Knoxville, Georgia, Pemberton earned his medical degree at age 19 from the Reform Medical College of Georgia in Macon. He practiced some medicine and surgery early in his career, later opening his own drug store in Columbus, Georgia.
During the Civil War, Pemberton fought for the South, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He moved to Atlanta after the war where he began selling patent medicines and operated his own laboratory, the Pemberton Chemical Co. One of the products he sold was called “Pemberton’s French Wine Coca,” a drink made of wine and coca extract that was prescribed as a cure for nervous disorders, headache and other ailments. The beverage was very similar to Vin Mariani, an extremely popular coca-based drink developed in 1863 in Paris. When Atlanta forbid the sale of alcohol in 1885, Pemberton changed the formula and began selling only the coca syrup.
That year, Pemberton mixed a version of the syrup in a brass kettle in his backyard that would later become Coca-Cola. It contained extracts of cocaine and of kola nuts, a rich source of caffeine, and sugar for sweetening instead of wine. Pemberton took the concoction to Jacob’s Pharmacy nearby for tasting. There it was mixed with carbonated water as a soda. It was to be sold as a “brain tonic” and offered as an ideal temperance drink.
His bookkeeper, Frank Robinson, came up with the name Coca-Cola, and also developed the script style that remains the company’s logo. At first, interest in the tonic was relatively low. Though Pemberton had attracted investors and devoted some time to promoting the drink, he seemingly saw no real potential in the formula. When Atlanta repealed its Prohibition laws in 1887, he resumed his focus on his original wine coca drink. In 1888 he sold his rights to Coca-Cola for the sum of $1,750. He died later that year on August 16.
Through a series of transactions, another Atlanta pharmacist, Asa Griggs Candler, gained ownership of the entire enterprise by 1891. He hired Robinson to direct advertising. They began selling Coca-Cola in bottles and also selling syrup to independent bottling companies through licensing agreements. By the end of the decade, Coca-Cola had become one of the nation’s most popular fountain drinks, sold all over the United States, as well as in Canada.
During the company’s early years, the Coca-Cola formula was altered several times. Until 1905, it contained extracts of cocaine and the kola nut. Candler removed the cocaine and added citric acid and a variety of fruit flavors. Today billions drink Coca-Cola every day in nearly every nation in the world.
Pemberton is remembered for his invention of the drink as well as for his contributions to medical reform and chemistry. He was a trustee of the former Emory University School of Medicine, served on the first Georgia pharmacy licensing board, and his laboratory became the first state-run facility to conduct tests of soil and crop chemicals. It continues to be operated by the Georgia Department of Agriculture.