Pemberton, John Stith

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John Stith Pemberton

American pharmacist John Stith Pemberton (1831-1888) was the inventor of Coca-Cola.

Pemberton was not an amateur tinkerer. He was one of the most successful pharmacists and chemists of his time in Atlanta, Georgia, and he had created several widely distributed products before he began to work on his cola idea. Coca-Cola, moreover, had a famous European predecessor; it did not emerge in a moment of serendipity in Pemberton's laboratory. “He's occasionally portrayed as a wandering medicine man,” researcher Monroe Martin King told Jack Hayes of Nation's Restaurant News. “But Dr. Pemberton worked in a fully outfitted laboratory and claimed to manufacture every chemical and pharmaceutical preparation used in the arts and sciences.” In spite of his other accomplishments, however, Pemberton would probably be forgotten today were it not for his connection with the ubiquitous drink later dubbed the pause that refreshes.

Trained as “Steam Doctor”

John Stith Pemberton was born on January 8, 1831, in the small town of Knoxville, Georgia, near Macon, but he grew up mostly in Rome, in Georgia's Appalachian foothills, and attended schools there. His father, James Clifford Pemberton, was a native of North Carolina. Pemberton returned to Macon to enroll at the Reform Medical College of Georgia there, taking courses in pharmacy and medicine. He was trained as a so-called steam doctor in a system devised by the Massachusetts doctor and herbalist Samuel Thomson—a system that relied on herbal treatments and steam baths that, it was believed, would help patients rid themselves of disease by sweating heavily. Pharmacy and the practice of medicine overlapped considerably in that system and in many of the other novel medical methods of the nineteenth century. He received his degree in Macon at the age of 19.

Later Pemberton acquired a more conventional pharmacy degree, perhaps in Philadelphia. In the early 1850s Pemberton launched a medical-surgical career in Rome. He married Ann Eliza Clifford Lewis, a student at Macon's Wesleyan College, and the pair moved to Columbus, Georgia, in 1853. They had a son, Charles, born the following year. Always on the lookout for financial opportunities bigger than those available to an average small-city pharmacist, he opened a wholesale and retail business selling the raw materials for pharmaceutical remedies sold in apothecary shops and less formal retail environments, such as medicine shows, across the South.

After the outbreak of the Civil War, Pemberton enlisted in the army of the Confederacy in May of 1862 and was made a first lieutenant. He organized the Third Georgia Cavalry Battalion for the defense of Columbus and reached the rank of lieutenant colonel. Pemberton was directly in the line of fire when Union troops under General James Wilson attacked Columbus on Easter Sunday of 1865, and he suffered gunshot and sword wounds in the battle. Pemberton, like many other Civil War veterans, is thought to have become addicted to morphine after using it for pain control as he recovered from these wounds.

After the war's end Pemberton formed a partnership with Columbus physician Austin Walker. He expanded his laboratory with the aim of devising new products and selling medicines and photography supplies. He branched out into cosmetics, finding success with a perfume called Sweet Southern Bouquet. By 1869 Pemberton was ready to join forces with larger investors in Atlanta, forming the firm of Pemberton, Wilson, Taylor and Company. He moved to Atlanta in 1870 with his family and began to make a name for himself in the growing city's medical establishment, serving as a trustee of Atlanta Medical College (the predecessor to today's Emory University Medical School). Pemberton's labs were state-of-the-art, and they remain in use today as a soil and crop chemical testing facility for the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

Marketed Cocaine-Wine Mixture

Among the successful products Pemberton launched in Atlanta in 1885 was a drink he called Pemberton's French Wine Coca. The product contained coca leaves from South America, which were precursors to cocaine, and Pemberton billed the drink, which was served at pharmacy counters, as a nerve tonic, a mental aid, a headache remedy, and a cure for morphine addiction. Unsurprisingly, it sold well. He admitted to an Atlanta newspaper interviewer that he had based Pemberton's French Wine Coca on an Italian-French product, Vin Mariani, that contained a similar wine-coca mixture and had won the endorsement of no less august a personage than Pope Leo XIII (who had agreed to the use of his image in advertising for the beverage). Pemberton's innovation was to add extracts from other tropical plants: the caffeine-containing kola nut produced by a genus of African trees, and damiana, a Central American shrub leaf reputed to have aphrodisiac properties.

Pemberton's French Wine Coca began to evolve into Coca-Cola when discussion of alcohol prohibition began to circulate within Atlanta's city government in 1886 (it was eventually implemented but lasted only one year). Worried that his newly popular product might soon be outlawed, Pemberton plunged into a fresh round of experimentation at his home on Marietta Street in Atlanta, using a household laboratory where he would work at all hours of the night. He devised an industrial-sized mixing-and-filter apparatus that passed from the house's second story through the floor to the ground level. Samples of his new alcohol-free syrups were sent out to local pharmacies for testing, with Pemberton's nephews assigned to report on customer reactions. One key breakthrough occurred when Pemberton had the idea of adding citric acid to counteract the sweetness of the sugar-based syrup.

By May of 1886 Pemberton was ready with his final formula, which was put on sale in syrup form at Atlanta's Jacob Pharmacy. The idea of bottling it came only in 1894; in the beginning it was a syrup served at the counter, mixed with water to create a beverage with a retail price of five cents. An unsung pharmacy clerk made a brilliant refinement when he found that he had soda water handy and asked a customer whether he could use it in place of plain water. Pemberton formed a new Pemberton Chemical Company to market his new drink, putting his son, Charles (who later died from the ravages of morphine), in charge of production. It was Pemberton's bookkeeper Frank Robinson, who was also one of his partners in the new business, who came up with the name Coca-Cola, referring to the drink's two active ingredients, and devised the antique script logo still in use today.

First-Year Sales of $50

Total Coca-Cola sales for the first year of operations were only $50—a failure in Pemberton's view, for he had spent $70 on supplies. But Robinson believed that exposure was all that was needed and persuaded Pemberton to devote a significant marketing budget to help popularize the new concoction, giving away free drink coupons and advertising Coca-Cola around Atlanta with banners, streetcar placards, and store awnings emblazoned with the message “Drink Coca-Cola.” Soon the product was spreading across the city, and Pemberton was convinced it was on its way to national popularity.

Pemberton, however, did not live to reap the profits from his invention. Suffering from stomach cancer, he progressively sold off two-thirds of his interest in the company to other investors, including the transplanted Northern pharmacist Asa G. Candler, as his condition worsened. He retained one-third for his son. In the last months of his life he dragged himself to his laboratory repeatedly in search of further improvements to the Coca-Cola formula, convinced that celery extract was the key to a still more attractive taste. Pemberton died on August 16, 1888, leaving his wife in a difficult financial situation. A struggle for control of Coca-Cola followed his death; the financial machinations that occurred were murky, with rights to both the name Coca-Cola and the formula for the drink under dispute, and it has never been entirely clear how Asa Candler, who was responsible for the growth of Coca-Cola in the 1890s, wrested control of the company from Charles Pemberton and the other investors. By 1905 fresh coca leaves had been removed from Coca-Cola (it still contains spent coca leaves, the part of the plant left over after cocaine is extracted), and by the 1930s the drink was a fixture of American life.


Hays, Constance L., The Real Thing: Truth and Power at the Coca-Cola Company, Random House, 2004.

Pendergrast, Mark, For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It, 2d ed., Basic Books, 2000.


Nation's Restaurant News, February 1996.


“The Chronicle of Coca-Cola,” Coca-Cola Company, (February 11, 2008).

“A History of Coca-Cola,” Associated Content, (February 11 2008).

“John Stith Pemberton,” article originally published in Business Heroes Newsletter (July 1998), (February 11, 2008).

“John Stith Pemberton (1831-1888),” New Georgia Encyclopedia, (February 11, 2008).