Widgets Magazine
MIGHTY HISTORY

Coke exists thanks to this wounded warrior from Civil War

There's a fun fact that you can't escape in the South: Coca-Cola used to have cocaine in it. The Coke brand is everywhere down here, and every 14-year-old will bring up the cocaine fact a couple of times a week for the first six months after they learn about it.



(Public domain)

The fact that cocaine used to be offered in every town usually gets written off as an odd quirk of history, but it turns out the inventor had a good reason to appreciate the coca plant: He had a number of gunshot and saber wounds from the Civil War.

Coke was invented by John Stith Pemberton (the drink is named after the coca plant, not the inventor or company founder). Pemberton became a doctor at the ripe old age of 19 in 1850. He was a successful surgeon and chemist in the 1850s, but he signed up for frontline service when the Civil War broke out.

He didn't serve as a doctor, though. He started as a first lieutenant in a cavalry unit in 1862 and climbed the ranks to lieutenant colonel. He faced his fiercest fighting when Union Gen. James Wilson attacked Columbus in 1865. Pemberton suffered multiple gunshots wounds and even a saber strike to his chest.

Union Gen. James Wilson led Union troops during the Battle of Columbus.

(Brady National Photographic Art Gallery)

Pemberton would suffer for years from the wounds he took near Columbus, and he struggled against an opium addiction thanks to all the painkillers he was given. But Pemberton was, luckily, a skilled chemist and pharmacist. He moved to Atlanta after the war and developed new chemical products.

He became aware of a new European product already popular in Italy and France, wine infused with extracts from coca leaves. After a new business partnership in 1870, he was able to purchase the equipment to develop even more complex products.

And, in 1885, he made his own version of the coca-infused wines which he called Pemberton's French Wine Coca. One thing worth noting here, this isn't technically cocaine in a drink. Coca leaves are a precursor to cocaine, but you have to use a solvent to extract cocaine sulfate from the leaves in order to get actual cocaine out. But Pemberton's wine did have anesthetic effects like cocaine would.

Pemberton sold the drink as a way to settle nerves, relieve pain, and cure morphine addiction. You know, the same morphine addiction that he and many of his veteran friends had.

The jump from French Wine Coca to Coca-Cola came when wine was threatened by alcohol prohibition in Atlanta and Pemberton decided to replace the sweetness from the wine with sweetness from sugar. After a few more changes to refine the taste, the product was renamed Coca-Cola and released in 1886.

It has gone through a few formula changes since, including switching fresh coca leaves out for spent coca leaves which have had the cocaine sulfate extracted. So, you know, you can't get high from Coke anymore.

Pemberton never got rich off his invention, though. He was still standing up the Coca-Cola Company under his son, Charles Pemberton when he died. The company passed into the hands of another investor, and the Pembertons were largely ousted.