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The Inventor of Coca-Cola was a Drug Addict who Died Penniless

Domagoj Valjak
John Pemberton
John Pemberton

Coca-Cola is probably the most recognizable drink in the world, with the curvy trademark bottles filled with the famous dark liquid daily reaching every corner of the planet. According to the company’s website, The Coca-Cola Company is the world’s largest beverage company with an operational reach of more than 200 countries and 1.9 billion servings of products each day.

The soft drink gained in popularity over the years and has slowly become a global icon like no other. But despite its status and sustained success, the company spends millions and millions of dollars on advertising and innovations that have clearly helped significantly in establishing Coca-Cola as one of the most recognizable brands in the world. Additionally, thanks to the company’s Christmas advertising and its influence on the holiday season, Coca-Cola has become largely associated with Christmas. Over the decades, the company has produced some of the world’s most established Christmas print advertisements and TV commercials.

The Coca-Cola Company is a clear example of unhindered globalism, employing over 100,000 people worldwide, and it is certainly among the most successful companies that have ever existed. However, the company’s origin story has a tragic aspect.

The Coca-Cola Company corporate headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. Author: Autiger – CC BY-SA 3.0

The Coca-Cola Company corporate headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. Author: Autiger – CC BY-SA 3.0

The famous drink was invented by John Pemberton, a pharmacist who fought in the 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.

Pemberton decided to use his pharmaceutical skills to develop a cure for his morphine 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 an aphrodisiac, and it soon 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 beverage 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 shares 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.