Who Was the Real Dr. Pepper?

By Matt Blitz |
Dr. Pepper, Soda, Can

© Ramin Talaie/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Even though it dates back to the 19th century, Dr Pepper (there's no "." in Dr Pepper the soda) didn't rise to prominence until the 1970s. While the soda remained a regionally-based brand for many years, television commercials like this one propelled it into the national soda conversation. And no rise to fame can be complete without a good origin story. For over a century mystery has swirled around the 131-year-old recipe (although a man claimed that he found the original in 2009). But there are also rumors around the origin of the soda’s name. The persistent legend is that the name was in loving memory of a Confederate surgeon’s beautiful daughter. But it turns out that may not be quite accurate. Here’s the story behind the true identity of Dr. Pepper.

This fizzy mystery begins in the Texas town of Waco in 1885. At the time, Waco was a small frontier town that had more bales of cotton than actual people. It also had earned the nickname “Six-Shooter Junction” for being rather lawless. Presumably on an old dusty corner in town, sat “Old Corner Drug Store,” a catch-all establishment that sold supplies, medicine, tonics and soft drinks. Owned by pharmacist Wade Morrison, it was a spot where a locals would go when they weren’t drinking, gambling or in a brothel. An employee of Morrison’s was a young Brooklyn-born pharmacist named Charles Alderton who had gone to college in England and received his medical degree at the University of Texas. One day, Alderton noticed that customers were getting tired of the traditional drink flavors of the time like lemon, vanilla and sarsaparilla. So, he began experimenting with various fruit extracts, sweeteners and spices. Settling on a 23-flavor concoction, he mixed it with phosphoric acid, which is still an ingredient in sodas today to impart a tangy flavor, and gave it to Morrison. After several taste tests, they served it to the public for the first time on December 1st, 1885 (at least according to the United States Patent Office). Customers loved it, so much so that they kept coming back to the counter asking for the “Waco” or, in keeping with the town’s violent theme, they would say “shoot me a Waco.” A soft drink was born. However, Morrison thought the drink need a better moniker than simply being named after their beloved town.

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Prior to Waco, Wade Morrison worked at a pharmacy in Rural Retreat, a small western Virginia town about 60 miles from the Tennessee border. There, the legend has it, his boss was Dr. Charles Pepper, a former Confederate surgeon. After the war, Pepper had settled down in Rural Retreat and opened his own shop. Now, this is where the story takes a Hollywood-esque turn. One day, a young Morrison was working in the store when his wandering eyes landed on a young lady that just so happened to be the boss’s daughter. A courtship proceeded between the two until Dr. Pepper decided enough was enough. Deeming Morrison not right for his daughter, he promptly stopped the romance by firing the young pharmacist. Shamed and unable to live in the same town as his lost love, Morrison retreated southwest to Waco. Years later, for his new soda, he chose the name “Dr. Pepper” as a way to always remember the love he once had.

This is no doubt an entertaining and heartfelt tale that even Dr Pepper today promotes as its origin story. It’s also likely not true. The factual errors begin with Morrison’s own life. He may have never lived in Rural Retreat but rather 55 miles northeast in town named Christiansburg. There was a Dr. Charles Pepper Confederate surgeon in Rural Retreat (who today lives eternally in a local cemetery), but no records ever say he employed Morrison and may have actually been living in the Virginia town of Bristol during Morrison’s time in the commonwealth. Furthermore, Pepper’s daughters were a bit young for Morrison, even for standards of the time ... or, really, any other time. According to one source, Pepper’s one living daughter (another had died as a toddler) was eight years old when Morrison was supposedly employed by her father. In other words, either this legend is false or Dr. Pepper terminated Morrison for a very good reason.

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It seems it was Morrison himself who propagated this story though, telling stockholders years later this sentimental tale. The truth, it seems, was much more mundane. According to one source, Morrison may have had a neighbor named Dr. Pepper while in Virginia. Following a familiar pattern of naming products after doctors to add legitimacy, he called the soda “Dr Pepper.”

Next time, you’re taking a swig of a Dr Pepper - be it in the “capital of Dr Pepper”or simply at home - remember that isn’t the truth that really matters, it’s the story that makes the soda taste better.

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