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John Pemberton, the inventor of Coca-Cola, died penniless and addicted to morphine

Domagoj Valjak

Coca-Cola is probably the most recognizable drink in the world, as the curvy trademark bottles filled with the famous black liquid daily reach every corner of the planet.

The Coca-Cola Company is an example of unhindered globalism, employing almost 130 thousand people worldwide and it is among the richest companies that have ever existed. However, the company’s origin story is somewhat tragic.

The Coca-Cola Company corporate headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia  Photo Credit

The Coca-Cola Company corporate headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia  Photo Credit

The famous drink was invented by John Pemberton, a pharmacist who fought in the American Civil War as a soldier of the Confederate army. In April 1865,  Pemberton fought in the Battle of Columbus which is by many regarded as the last battle of the Civil War. He sustained a near-fatal saber wound to the chest and had to use morphine as a painkiller for an extensive period of time. He soon developed a crippling morphine addiction.

He decided to use his pharmaceutical skills to develop a cure for his addiction, so he started experimenting with various plants, including coca. In 1866, only a year after the Battle of Columbus, he started selling an alcoholic drink named “Pemberton’s French Wine Coca.” He produced the drink in his private pharmacy Pemberton’s Eagle and Drug House.

Portrait of John Pemberton

Portrait of John Pemberton

The drink was advertised as a painkiller, an anti-depressant, and aphrodisiac, and gained considerable popularity.

However, in 1886 Atlanta County enacted temperance legislation, which meant that the residents of the county were prohibited from producing, buying or selling alcohol. This greatly affected Pemberton’s enterprise, and he was forced to turn his drink into a non-alcoholic beverage.

An advertisement for Pemberton’s pharmacy.

An advertisement for Pemberton’s pharmacy.

He registered the Coca-Cola Company and perfected his famous secret recipe with the help of his longtime friend Willis E. Venable. The two initially intended to advertise the drink as a medicine, but they accidentally blended the base syrup with carbonated water and decided to advertise the drink as a refreshing soda.

Believed to be the first coupon ever, this ticket for a free glass of Coca-Cola was first distributed in 1888 to help promote the drink. By 1913, the company had redeemed 8.5 million tickets

Believed to be the first coupon ever, this ticket for a free glass of Coca-Cola was first distributed in 1888 to help promote the drink. By 1913, the company had redeemed 8.5 million tickets

Although Pemberton predicted that Coca-Cola would one day become a “national drink,” the drink initially wasn’t very popular, and Pemberton started selling his rights to the recipe to his business partners in Atlanta.

His major problem was that the drink didn’t cure his morphine addiction, and his health began to deteriorate pretty rapidly.

An early advertisement of Coca-Cola

An early advertisement of Coca-Cola

Morphine was an expensive substance and Pemberton spent vast amounts of money to satisfy his cravings. He died of stomach cancer in 1888, terminally ill and practically penniless.

Read another story from us: The World of Coca-Cola: A museum dedicated entirely to the world’s most popular soft drink

Still, Pemberton intended to leave a considerable share of his company to his son, who was also named Charles Pemberton. Unfortunately, for the future generations of the Pemberton family, Charles Pemberton the younger decided to sell his share of the Coca-Cola Company, as he was a morphine addict himself. He died only six years after his father and never witnessed the immense popularity of Coca-Cola.