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On doctor's orders

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On doctor's orders

Steve Ainsworth works up a thirst exploring the roots of a $2.6bn brand

What is it about pharmacists and soft drinks? Maybe making up prescriptions by hand used to be particularly thirsty work. The world has pharmacists to thank for such well-known names as Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola and Lucozade.

But taking precedence (at least by age) over all three of these famous brands is another popular drink, once advertised as ‘Liquid Sunshine’. The name is Dr Pepper. Today the town of Waco, Texas, with a population of 125,000, is most famous, indeed infamous, for the 1993 siege in which over 70 members of a religious cult known as the Branch Davidians were killed during a firefight with law enforcement officers.

In the 1880s however, with a population of fewer than 8,000 souls, the small town was the unlikely birthplace of a pharmacist-invented health drink whose name was destined to be become a worldwide success. Waco was not, however, the birthplace of the pharmacist. Charles Courtice Alderton was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1857. His British-born parents sent him ‘home’ to be educated at Framlingham College, a still-thriving public school near Woodbridge, in Suffolk.

Twenty-three ingredients
How the promising public school-educated young man came to return to the USA, study medicine at the University of Texas, and subsequently turn up working as a pharmacist in the then tiny Texan town of Waco, is a mystery.

What is not a mystery, however, is that sometime before 1885 Alderton came up with a 23 ingredient formula for the drink which would become a household name in much of the world. Charles Alderton was working in Wade B Morrison’s ‘Old Corner Drug Store’ in Waco when he came up with his novel recipe for a health-giving fizzy drink. Wade Morrison liked it. And so did patrons of Morrison’s soda fountain.

Strangely the new drink had no name, and customers simply began asking for a ‘Waco’. In an act of extraordinary generosity – or more likely extreme naivety – Charles Alderton gave his formula to Wade Morrison. On 1 December 1885 Morrison patented the product and its name – Dr Pepper.

But why Dr Pepper? The drink doesn’t contain pepper. In truth, no one is sure where the name came from. One theory is that ‘pep’ refers to pepsin. Eight years ago, an old ledger book filled with formulas and recipes was discovered in an antiques store in Texas. Several loose sheets and letters suggested that the ledger was connected to the ‘W.B. Morrison & Co. Old Corner Drug Store’.

The title on the book’s cover read ‘Castles Formulas’. John Castles was a partner of Morrison’s for a time and worked at the Waco drug store in the 1880s. One recipe in the book was entitled ‘D Peppers Pepsin Bitters’ - some speculated it could be an early recipe for Dr Pepper. The company today denies any connection with the recipe.

Unrequited love
Or maybe Dr Pepper is just a drink that ‘peps’ one up? Most pleasing of all the theories is that Wade Morrison chose the name as a reminder of unrequited teenage love. In his youth, Morrison lived in the town of Christiansburg, Virginia, where he worked as a pharmacist’s assistant.

According to the US census, a near neighbour of the 17-year-old Morrison was a Dr Pepper and his 16-year-old daughter, Melinda. Perhaps Melinda was part of the reason Wade Morrison left Christiansburg to set up a pharmacy in another state? From its small beginnings in Waco Dr Pepper was launched nationally in the United States at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition as a new kind of soda drink, available in 23 flavours.

Within a few years, Dr Pepper was a bestseller all across the USA. And no wonder if its advertised health giving properties were to be believed! Dr Pepper the ‘King of Beverages’ would ‘… promote cell building…’ and provide drinkers with ‘... vim, vigour and vitality’ through the benefits of its ‘solar energy liquid sunshine’. Sadly, Dr Pepper is not now thought quite so invigorating as it was a century ago. Today, there’s a Dr Pepper Museum, located in the Artesian Manufacturing and Bottling Company building at 300 South Fifth Street in Waco. The museum opened to the public in 1991.

The plant was the first building to be built specifically to bottle Dr Pepper. It was completed in 1906, and Dr Pepper was bottled there until the 1960s. As for Dr Pepper’s inventor, pharmacist Charles Courtice Alderton, he lived to the age of 84 and died in 1941.

He seems never to have left Waco, but in 1919 he took up work with the Waco Drug Company where he oversaw that company’s laboratory. By then, Alderton was considered to be ‘one of the leading chemists in the South’. Ironically his workplace was just a stone’s throw from the building that is now the Dr Pepper museum. No doubt as he looked out of his window it must have crossed the pharmacist’s mind many times that he wasn’t getting paid a penny for even one of the millions of bottles leaving the Texas bottling plant...

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