The Biography of John Pemberton


John Stith Pemberton was born July 8, 1831, in Knoxville, Georgia. He 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; however his main talent was chemistry. 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.

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.

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.

In 1866, seeking a cure for his addiction, he began to experiment with painkillers that would serve as opium-free alternatives to morphine. His first recipe wasn’t. 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.

 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.

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

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. 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. 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”

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.

 Pemberton had a hunch that his formula “someday will be a national drink”, so he attempted to retain a share of the ownership to leave to his son. However, Pemberton’s son wanted the money, so in 1888 Pemberton and his son sold the remaining portion of the patent to Asa Candler.

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 grave marker 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.

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’.


Here are 5 facts about druggist and chemist John Stith Pemberton, the brains behind 1 of America’s most recognized products.


  1.     Coca-Cola’s inventor served as an officer in the Civil War, and an injury eventually led to the creation of the carbonated drink. 

Pemberton served in the Confederate army for almost the entire span of the Civil War, according to Richard Gardiner, whose article on Pemberton was published in the Journal of the Muscogee Genealogical Society. During a battle involving a sword fight on horseback with Union cavalry, Pemberton was shot and slashed by a saber. Before the war, Pemberton had served as a chemist and druggist, so he had access to morphine and became dependent upon it to ease his pain after the war.


  1.     Pemberton turned to cocaine as a substitute for morphine. 

The Georgia man began to experiment with opium-free medicine, as he knew his morphine addiction was dangerous. When another doctor claimed he could cure opium habits with coca (cocaine), Pemberton devised his own concoction, which used coca leaves and kola nuts and was called French Wine Coca. A local prohibition law was enacted in 1886, so Pemberton was forced to remove the alcoholic element and his formula thus became Coca-Cola, according to Dominic Streatfeild, who authored Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography.


  1.     Pemberton’s bookkeeper gave helpful advertising advice.

It was Pemberton’s partner and bookkeeper, Frank M. Robinson, who suggested that the logo should employ 2 Cs in Coca-Cola instead of using Coca-Cola, for the kola nut extraction used in the formula. Robinson was also responsible for the handwriting of the logo, according to Coke’s website.


  1.     The pharmacist’s morphine addiction spurred him to sell the company.

Growing sick, Pemberton started to sell off parts of the company because he needed money to support not just his family, but also his morphine addiction, according to Mark Pendergrast’s book For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company that Makes It. Coke maintains on its website that Pemberton “never realized the potential of the beverage he created” and sold the company in pieces to various partners. Just before his death in 1888, Pemberton sold his remaining interest to a businessman named Asa Candler. 


  1.     Pemberton wanted his son to profit from the business, but Charley Pemberton turned out to be trouble.

Hoping his product could be passed down to his family, Pemberton sought to have his son Charley keep some ownership of the company. For a while, Pemberton maintained that his son had ownership of the name, while other companies were allowed to use the formula. Eventually, Candler bought out Charley, who was described as disagreeable and prone to drinking in Pendergrast’s book. According to several sources, Charley died in 1894 and was found with opium at his side, while Pemberton’s wife spent the rest of her life as a pauper

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