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Dr. John S. Pemberton (inventor of Coca-Cola)

By Jack Hayes
Nation's Restaurant News, 30 (February 1996): 120-121
Reprinted with permission.

Dr. John S. Pemberton

Dr. John S. Pemberton

It was a prohibition law, enacted in Atlanta in 1886, that persuaded physician and chemist Dr. John Stith Pemberton to rename and rewrite the formula for his popular nerve tonic, stimulant and headache remedy, "Pemberton's French Wine Coca," sold at that time by most, if not all, of the city's druggists.

So when the new Coca-Cola debuted later that year--still possessing "the valuable tonic and nerve stimulant properties of the coca plant and cola nuts," yet sweetened with sugar instead of wine--Pemberton advertised it not only as a "delicious, exhilarating, refreshing and invigorating" soda-fountain beverage but also as the ideal "temperance drink."

Though Pemberton died just two years later--five months, in fact, after his March 24, 1888, filing for incorporation of the first Coca-Cola Co.--the trademark he and his partners created more than one hundred years ago can claim wider recognition today than that of any other brand in the world.

And the Coca-Cola beverage, whose unit sales totaled a mere 3,200 servings in 1886 ("nine drinks per day" based on the twenty-five gallons of syrup sold to drugstores by Pemberton Chemical Co.), is today called the world's most popular soft drink--accounting for billions of servings at restaurants in 195 countries.

Such is the commercial legacy of a onetime Confederate lieutenant colonel who earned his medical degree at the age of nineteen, who served on the first Georgia pharmacy licensing board, who set up a top-rated laboratory for chemical analysis and manufacturing, and who, in his dozen-and-a-half years in Atlanta, established eighteen business ventures--including one, the Coca-Cola Co., which now can boast 1995 sales in excess of $15 billion.

Notwithstanding Pemberton's numerous professional and entrepreneurial accomplishments, however, Coca-Cola historians characterize him as "a local pharmacist" who concocted the world's most craved soft-drink syrup in a three-legged brass pot in his backyard.

"Coca-Cola was not the creation of an inept, small-time corner druggist," said archivist Monroe Martin King, who has spent twenty-one years researching the life of John Pemberton--from his childhood in Rome, Ga., to his college days in Macon to his enterprising years in Atlanta.

"He's occasionally portrayed as a wandering medicine man," King added. "But Dr. Pemberton worked in a fully outfitted laboratory and claimed to manufacture every chemical and pharmaceutical preparation used in the arts and sciences."

According to King, Pemberton's analytical laboratory became the first state-run facility to conduct tests of soil and crop chemicals. It continues to be operated by the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

King further noted that Pemberton, who practiced medicine and surgery as a young man and later became a trustee of the former Emory University School of Medicine, earned a solid reputation for his skill in chemistry and his work in medical reform.

But King feels the Coca-Cola Co. of today drew an accurate conclusion when it stated: "Dr. Pemberton never fully realized the potential of the beverage he created."

Indeed, while Pemberton gets credit for the formula behind the Coca-Cola taste, he has had capable successors in Asa Candler, Robert Woodruff and Roberto Goizueta--men who built the product and the company into an icon of pleasure and profit.

According to King, Pemberton actually remained more interested in expanding the market for French Wine Coca, a product based on the formula for another extremely popular coca-based beverage, Vin Mariani, which had been developed in Paris in 1863.

So when Atlanta's prohibition act was repealed in 1887, only a year after its passage, Pemberton resumed the manufacture and sale of his original patent medicine, leaving his son Charles to oversee the production of Coca-Cola.

Although Pemberton may have envisioned a future for his soft-drink creation--enticing six Atlanta businessmen to invest in the start-up Coca-Cola enterprise--for reasons that remain a mystery he soon began selling his interest in the formula.

"Dr. Pemberton . . . must have believed that it had little value and no potential assurance of substantial success," said Charles Candler in a 1953 biographical sketch about his father, titled "Asa Griggs Candler, Coca-Cola and Emory College."

Asa Candler, who, according to King, had worked for Pemberton as early as 1872, wound up, after a series of transactions, controlling the company within a short time of Pemberton's death. By 1891 he owned all of the Coca-Cola business.

Charles Candler relates that one of his father's first missions was to change the original Pemberton formula in order "to improve the taste of the product, to ensure its uniformity and its stability."

According to Asa Candler's son, Candler hired Pemberton's former partner, Frank Robinson. The two of them, "by adding essential ingredients and taking others out . . . perfected the formula," Charles Candler said.

In fact, it was Robinson who created the Coca-Cola name and script logo, convincing the company to tie the classic slogan "delicious and refreshing" into all future advertising.

After the turn of the century, when federal and state authorities began writing regulations to ban the sale of coca products because of their supposed contamination with the drug cocaine, Coca-Cola lawyers argued strenuously that their syrup contained only a minuscule flavor extract of the coca leaf.

Coca-Cola attorneys also were called to battle against competitors who called the product name a misrepresentation if, as argued, its principal ingredients were neither the coca leaf nor the kola nut--a source of caffeine that made the early beverage useful in healing headaches.

Asa Griggs Candler

Asa Griggs Candler

Despite such obstacles, Candler's prowess as a merchandiser had driven the widely promoted Coca-Cola beverage into "every state and territory in the United States" by 1895.

Considered a pioneer in coupon promotions, Candler offered two gallons of Coca-Cola syrup "to any retailer or soda fountain man" who would dispense 128 free servings (a gallon's worth) of the beverage to customers who showed up with one of his cards.

Not only were syrup manufacturing facilities opening in such cities as Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles, but a network of bottlers was being created nationwide as well.

Under Woodruff's tenure, from 1923 until 1981, Coca-Cola rose from national to international dominance--a move accompanied by the early, explosive growth of the bottled beverage.

By 1928 bottled sales had eclipsed fountain sales, thanks to the pioneering introduction of a carton now popularly called the six-pack. The following year the company introduced metal open-top coolers. Then in 1933 at the Chicago World Fair automatic fountain dispensers made their debut.

Having expanded the brand into fourty-four countries by the outbreak of World War II, Woodruff, within fifteen years of the war's end, had managed to double that number. "Now the saying is you have to be global," said Goizueta, Coca-Cola's current chairman and chief executive. "We were global when global wasn't cool."

Two decades later, when Coca-Cola's board elected Goizueta to the post of chairman and chief executive, the company was embarked on a financial mission--to become one of the best-performing corporations in America.

Average annual fountain-sales growth under Goizueta has continued to surge. And despite consumer uproar over the company's attempted Coca-Cola reformulation in 1985, the introduction of Diet Coke in 1982 was hailed as the most successful product launch of the past decade.

Yet none of the company's strides in marketing, international expansion, product innovation or profit growth could have happened had it not been for Coca-Cola's inventor, John Pemberton.

Atlanta druggists--Asa Candler among them--closed their stores on the day of Pemberton's funeral "and attended the services in mass as a tribute of respect," according to newspaper records from that era.

"On that day," declared archivist Monroe King, "not one drop of Coca-Cola was dispensed in the entire city."

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