March 29: Enjoy Coca-Cola

This Day in History

What do you drink? Coke, soda or pop? Depending on where you live, you may call the carbonated, sugary drink a plethora of names. Many in South refer to the dark-bubbly syrup as “coke,” after Georgia pharmacist John Pemberton’s Coca-Cola drink, which was first invented on this day in 1886, in Atlanta, Georgia. 

While serving as a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate army during the Civil War, Pemberton was slashed in the chest at the Battle of Columbus. To manage the pain, he began taking morphine pills excessively and soon became addicted to the drug, a common aliment for many Civil War veterans. Although his struggle with addiction was tragic and tormenting, he used his hardship to produced one of the world’s most popular drinks. Instead of accepting his defeat, the pharmacist from Georgia decided to invent a medicine to cure his addiction.

John S. Pemberton

If his first recipe had been successful, you might be drinking, “Dr. Tuggle’s Compound Syrup of Globe Flower,” instead of coke.

Unfortunately, the main ingredient was derived from a toxic plant local in Georgia called the buttonbush. After failing to invent a successful medicine, Pemberton branched out to creating a different type of wine using the kola nut, an African fruit tree nut high in caffeine.

He labeled it “Pemberton’s French Wine Coca.” The main ingredients were cocaethylene (a drug combination of cocaine and alcohol) and French wine. He began marketing the substance to upper-class intellectuals as a cure-all for any mental exertion (in addition to a cure for morphine addiction). 

For obvious reasons, the drink was extremely popular and addictive. By 1887, his French Wine was selling up for 720 bottles a day- highly successful for a small pharmacy in Atlanta! 

Business would soon come to an abrupt end, however, when in 1886, Atlanta passed temperance legislation, which banned the sale of alcohol. Creatively solving problems once again, Pemberton embarked on inventing a non-alcoholic version of his popular wine: Coca-Cola.

While working with his partner, Pemberton accidentally mixed the special French wine syrup with carbonated water resulting in a strange, bubbly drink. Upon first taste, Pemberton exclaimed that it was “delicious, refreshing, pure joy, exhilarating, invigorating!”

As suggested in the name, the first batch of Coca-Cola did contain cocaine, but not alcohol. At the time, doctors were not fully aware of the lethal effects of cocaine. In fact, many patented medicines used cocaine to cure a number of aliments and addictions.

Since Coco-Cola was first intended to be used as a medicine-wine, the original recipe called for nine milligrams of cocaine per glass! When doctors began to raise concerns about cocaine, Pemberton began to alter the ingredients to exclude the drug. 

A 1940's ad for Coca-Cola

The new fountain drink was wildly successful. Although the drink did not cure his addiction to morphine as expected, it did give the world a new, fascinating, less-dangerous substance.

Unfortately, Pemberton did not live long enough to see his invention mesmerize the world. Before he died of stomach cancer less than two years later, he bequeathed his share of his company, The Coca-Cola Company, to his son, for he knew that his formula would “some day be a national drink.”

Little did he know, under the leadership of his successor Asa Chandler, Coca-Cola would become one of the most internationally recognized brands in the world. The struggling morphine addict had made the world a more refreshing place. 

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