Dr. John S. Pemberton was a Georgia boy, through and through. He was born in Knoxville, served in the Cavalry of the Confederate Army, went to medical college in Macon, and married a Southern Belle from Columbus. But most notably he invented the Peach State’s best known product besides peaches—Coca Cola.
Pemberton was wounded during the Civil War, having suffered a terrible sword slash across his chest. As with many wounded soldiers of the time he became addicted to morphine, the drug used by many veterans to dull the constant pain of their wounds.
As a man of medicine, he knew something about the nature of addiction, and as a pharmacist and accomplished chemist he started experimenting with pain relievers that weren’t based on opium, as morphine was. What to use instead? Why, cocaine of course, mixed with caffeine and alcohol.
This wasn’t a crazy idea at the time. Many products, “tonics” or “elixirs” as they were usually called, often had cocaine or alcohol or caffeine (or all three) as ingredients. Pemberton’s original recipe was a slurry of coca leaves and kola nuts mixed with wine—an active ingredient trifecta—that he called “Pemberton’s French Wine Coca.” But just as he was trying to market his fortified wine elixir, Georgia was on the verge of a period of prohibition. So he removed the wine but the syrup remained, a syrup that would go down in the annals of soda pop history.
Pemberton eventually eliminated the cocaine too, hitting on the recipe that would become the true foundation of Coca Cola. Sadly, with or without his cocaine-caffeine-wine cocktail, Pemberton wasn’t able to fully conquer his morphine habit. At the end of his life he was still an addict and nearly destitute, forced to sell the formula to his fast-growing soda creation and most of his shares in the company he helped create.
He was only 57 when he died in Atlanta. His body was transported back to his home of Columbus where he is buried in Linwood Cemetery. His gravestone is etched with symbols of both Freemasonry and his Confederate veteran status, in the end still a Georgia boy, through and through.
Know Before You Go
Linwood Cemetery is off Veterans Parkway in downtown Columbus, grave is near the rear fence along 17th Street. If you're really interested in Pemberton, don't miss the World of Coca Cola Museum just up the road in Atlanta. It showcases some of his efforts in the production process.