INDIANAPOLIS — Vile-tasting synthetic sweat was developed in a basement lab by doctors who, soon after, landed at the Indiana University School of Medicine and convinced canned bean company Stokely Van-Camp to bottle the concoction and sell it.
That’s how a multi-billion dollar sports drink industry was launched in Indianapolis, with a beverage called Gatorade.
“99.9% of Indiana does not know this,” said Dr. Richard Schreiner, a former IU School of Medicine professor who, for decades, has studied the school’s history. “It is just a fascinating tale.”
Fascinating and one of those multilayered sagas of football, mixed with medicine, mixed with science, mixed with electrolytes that is long forgotten or unknown by many.
Gatorade, the drink that generates $18 billion in annual sales and has been the fluid to sports superstars — one that encouraged backyard athletes to “Be Like Mike” — got its start at 941 N. Meridian St.
Inside those downtown headquarters, Stokely-Van Camp took the clear synthetic sweat, sweetened it and launched a liquid empire.
‘Why don’t players wee-wee?’
The idea for Gatorade was born at a coffee-snack bar at the University of Florida School of Medicine in 1965. Kidney specialist Dr. Robert Cade, who later said he vomited the first time he tasted his drink, and fellow Dr. Dana Shires had just finished an early-morning experiment and were taking a break.
The medical school’s security officer, Dwayne Douglas, walked in. He happened to be an assistant coach for the Florida Gators football team and he had a question.
“Doctor, why don’t football players wee-wee during a game?” he asked Cade, according to Cade’s documentation of the story of Gatorade’s creation in his writing, “The Piss Prophets.”
“The question changed all of our lives,” Cade later said.
The three surmised over coffee and doughnuts that it must be all the sweat the players expel that cause them to go restroom-free. The two doctors went to the library and read everything they could find on thermodynamic physiology during exercise.
Players weren’t allowed to drink water during practices and games in the 1960s, Schreiner said. Coaches believed it made them sluggish on the field. At most, some teams let players take a salt tablet with a small gulp of water, which was supposed to replace lost sodium.
In the Florida heat, though, the Gators were worse off than others. Many were suffering from heat exhaustion due to the heavy equipment they wore, the humidity and the scorching, southern sun.
Cade and Shires, as well as two other fellows, Dr. H. James Free and Dr. Alejandro de Quesada, went to Gators coach Ray Graves. They asked to study his team as the 1965 football season began.
Graves said yes, with one condition. Only the freshman team could be part of the research. The doctors promptly agreed and collected players’ sweat by squeezing it out of their used jerseys. They found water loss was staggering for the two-hour practice — 8.14 quarts per person.
Down in a basement lab one evening, the doctors mixed up a solution to replicate sweat and then poured it into cups. They clicked their cups in a toast (having no idea what they had just created) and took a swig, Cade wrote. The doctors who were standing next to a lab sink quickly spit theirs out.
Cade, who wasn’t near a sink, swallowed his and then vomited.
The doctors tinkered with the formula, adding lemon, orange and a non-nutritive sweetener. And, at last, Gatorade was drinkable. Not tasty, but drinkable.
“We were all familiar with the medical literature surrounding intestinal absorption of fluid,” said Shires in a 1970 IndyStar article. “All we had to do was sit down and compound a solution that we can get football players to drink. We weren’t real flavor experts, so it didn’t taste real good until Stokely got to work on the flavor.”
Soon after the doctors introduced their drink to the team, the Gators began winning. The varsity team started consuming Gatorade, too, and it began to defeat heavily favored teams in intense heat.
The following 1966 season, the Gators went 9-2 and won the Orange Bowl for the first time in the school’s history, beating Georgia Tech 27-12.
Tech coach Bobby Dodd told reporters after the game that his team lost because, “We didn’t have Gatorade. . . . That made the difference.”
“Word about Gatorade began to spread outside of the state of Florida, and both the University of Richmond and Miami of Ohio, began ordering batches of Gatorade for their football teams,” Gatorade says of the history of its drink on its website. “Orders from other college football programs across the country soon followed, as playing without Gatorade on your sidelines began to be likened to playing with just ten men on the field.”
Gatorade’s Indy launch
Meanwhile, Indiana University School of Medicine was developing an artificial kidney and kidney transplant program in 1966. It recruited three doctors from Florida.
Their names were Shires, de Quesada and another of Cade’s fellows, Dr. Kent Bradley.
“Strangely enough, our coming here didn’t have a thing to do with Gatorade,” Dr. Shires said in a 1970 IndyStar article, “We were all working in the area of kidney disease in Florida and we were brought here to work on the kidney disease program.”
But through an acquaintance, Bradley was invited to a Stokely-Van Camp Christmas party in 1966.
“At the party, he met Alfred J. Stokely and several upper level executives in the company and told them about the wonderful new drink Gatorade,” Cade wrote. “They were very interested.”
Bradley asked Cade to send samples to Indianapolis. He made up three batches of lemon lime, orange and a grape flavor. A couple of days later Bradley called to tell Cade that the executives, especially Alfred J. Stokely, liked the idea and wanted to investigate commercialization of Gatorade.
Shires, Bradley and Quesada, all assistant professors at IU School of Medicine and all working at Cold Spring Road Veterans Administration Hospital, were about to meet a patient who would help make that happen.
‘A product which might never sell’
Twice a week, high-profile Indianapolis attorney Claude Spilman would go to the veterans hospital.
“For the last three years he’s lived without kidneys and goes to the VA hospital,” a 1970 IndyStar article reported. “(For 9-hour sessions) with the dialysis machine to get his blood washed.”
The doctors began talking to Spilman about Gatorade.
“They explained to him as they were dialyzing him, he was in renal failure,” Schreiner said. “They were telling him that they had this stuff for athletes and they wanted to sell it. Claude said he would do the legal work for them.”
In March 1967, Stokely-Van Camp officials went to Florida to sign an agreement giving them three months to look at the possibilities of launching the product, Cade wrote.
“In May, we met with them again and sold the product and the name to them for a royalty which we would receive in perpetuity,” Cade wrote. “We had wanted an outright sale for $1 million but they were concerned about putting out that much money in advance for a product which might never sell.”
The doctors gave Stokely-Van Camp the exclusive license to market Gatorade. Spilman set up the Gatorade Trust, which still exists in Indianapolis today and doles out millions of dollars in royalties to inventors and other beneficiaries.
“The perpetual royalty turned out very well for us,” Cade said in his writings, “as 35 years later we still get a royalty payment every other month which is several times larger than the $1 million we had asked.”
Product details were nailed down early in the summer of 1967, including agreeing on a name. Cade wrote that he thought the name Gatorade, after the Florida Gators, was “too parochial.” Stokely-Van Camp considered re-branding the drink as Quench or Rebound.
But they soon discovered that people andteams trying to order it already knew the name Gatorade. And they were willing to buy it for 29 cents a quart. That translates to $2.27 a quart in 2020 dollars.
In July 1967, Gatorade hit the market.
A little glitch and then tasty triumph
Because Stokely-Van Camp was a canned bean company, it sold Gatorade in the 32-ounce cans it also used for its pork and beans.
But the cans began rusting from the inside on grocery store shelves and the drink was oozing out, dripping onto floors and in refrigerators of people “who enthusiastically bought it,” Cade wrote.
The problem was quickly fixed and, by December 1967, Gatorade was in glass quart jars being marketed as the “beverage of champions.”
Eventually the University of Florida saw dollar signs from the product its doctors had created. It sued the Gatorade Trust for some of the proceeds. A nearly three-year legal battle ensued and eventually the parties settled in 1973 with Florida getting a 20% share of the royalties.
In 1983, Stokely-Van Camp was sold to Chicago-based Quaker Oats Co. for $230 million. PepsiCo bought Quaker Oats in 2001 and now owns the Gatorade brand.
In Cade’s 2007 obituary, he was quoted as once saying he thought Gatorade would be limited to sports teams and never dreamed it would be purchased by regular consumers.
Shires said in an IndyStar article a few years after Gatorade’s launch that he never fathomed the drink would be commercialized.
“We started this as a lark,” Shires said, “with no idea of putting it on the market.”