Dr. Robert Cade…saga of the world’s best-selling sports drink and the creative physician scientist behind it

When it comes to icons that link the history and future of the UF Health Science Center, nothing tops the sports drink called Gatorade®, concocted more than 37 years ago in laboratories directed by UF physician-scientist Robert Cade, M.D.

The beverage made its first big headlines in 1966 when sportswriters discovered a link between the UF Gators’ superior second-half performances and their consumption of the brew. At the close of the football season that year after the Gators trounced Miami, the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville ran a story titled “One Lil’Swig of That Kickapoo Juice and Biff, Bam, Sock — It’s Gators, 8-2.”

Fame expanded exponentially when a Miami Herald sportswriter asked what the Gators were drinking. In an interview with Cade, he learned it was a mixture of water, sodium, potassium, phosphate, sugar and fresh-squeezed lemon juice, which kept players adequately hydrated and warded off fatigue. The Herald’s story was distributed worldwide by Associated Press and United Press International, and in Cade’s words, “Our stuff was on its way.”

Gatorade is an enduring global marketing success, now sold in 19 flavors. Sales in 47 countries generate close to $2.1 billion in revenue every year, of which UF receives a little over $8 million in royalty income. Since 1973, UF’s share has added up to about $81 million.

Collegiate, professional and amateur athletes everywhere drink and douse each other with it at victory celebrations. Gatorade also fills an important niche in medicine.

College of Medicine Dean C. Craig Tisher, M.D., a colleague of Cade, said, “The ingestion of Gatorade by athletes at all levels of competition, as well as by ‘weekend warriors’ — especially under conditions of extreme heat and humidity — has undoubtedly prevented countless episodes of heat stress and heat stroke, the latter of which is often associated with kidney failure and death.

“Further, the use of Gatorade in medical conditions associated with extreme dehydration, such as diarrheal diseases and other causes of volume depletion, offers the medical community a relatively simple and inexpensive way to manage a pathophysiologic condition that is often life-threatening,” Tisher said.

When Cade tells the story of Gatorade’s history, he mixes volumes of humor into the details.

He recalls that in 1965, when he and research fellows Dana Shires, M.D., Jim Free, M.D., and A.M. deQuesada, M.D., began mixing up their blend of liquid carbohydrates and electrolytes, they aimed to find a way to keep Gators adequately hydrated while they played to win in the hot humid “swamp.” They were inspired to get into the project after former Gator Coach Dwayne Douglas (also the Health Science Center’s security officer) asked Cade, “Doctor, why don’t football players wee-wee after a game?”

“That question changed our lives,” Cade said.

Fairly quickly, the researchers confirmed the short answer — that football players typically lose so much fluid in sweat that they have none left to form urine. It took them longer to answer detailed questions about how massive loss of fluid and electrolytes affects blood pressure, body temperature and the volume of blood in the arteries and veins.

Cade and colleagues determined that a football player could lose 16 to 18 pounds during the three hours it takes to play a game. They further found that 90 to 95 percent of the weight loss was due to water loss, and plasma volume was decreased about 7 percent and blood volume about 5 percent. In addition, the average loss of sodium and chloride was 25 percent of the total body stores of these electrolytes.

To develop a beverage that would enable athletes to perform well longer, the group determined they would need to supply enough water to replace the huge losses that had occurred and include additional sodium, which keeps water in the blood and in extracellular spaces throughout the body. They also would need to add the right amount of sugar, the key source of energy during exercise, and the proper amount of phosphate needed for the body to burn sugar.

Once the group had a product with all the needed ingredients, they ran it through their own taste tests and found it totally unacceptable — until they added the fresh-squeezed lemon juice. They then sought cooperative athletes to test it on the field of action.

Cade approached Gator Coach Ray Graves to seek permission to test the first batch of Gatorade on his players, and Graves agreed, provided the tests would be done only with freshmen. Facing a game with Louisiana State University, Graves apparently didn’t want to take any risk with his varsity players. As it turned out, the freshmen players held up well in the heat.

Cade recalls that in August 1966, after only a day of practice scrimmage, seven Gator players were brought to the Shands hospital emergency room where Cade helped care for them. The next day, 17 players came to the emergency room, and eight were admitted to the hospital. Deeply concerned, Graves asked Cade for enough Gatorade to keep all players supplied during both practice and games. Over the next five years, only one player had to be hospitalized for treatment of a heat-related illness. Turns out, he had not drunk any Gatorade. Jim Free, M.D., now retired from private practice as a kidney specialist, proposed the name Gatorade, which was readily accepted by the group.

Word of Gatorade’s energy-boosting effects spread rapidly, and soon Gator rivals were buying it. Stokely-Van Camp initially obtained licensing rights from UF and put its marketing muscle into making Gatorade a “beverage of champions.” Subsequently, Quaker Oats Co. obtained licensing rights, and more recently Quaker Oats merged with Pepsico Inc.

The original research took place in the subbasement of UF’s old pharmacy building, which was part of a designated emergency shelter. Cade, who then directed the medical school’s renal and electrolyte division, said he spent $43 for lab supplies used in taking blood samples, and $111 for treating the volunteers to steak dinners after every “test run.”

In addition to his research and teaching, Cade pursues an eclectic range of interests from playing the violin, writing poetry and growing roses to restoring antique Studebaker cars. It is his love of learning, however, that still attracts him five days a week to his laboratories in a modular building west of campus. At 75, the idea of retirement is out of sync with the excitement he finds in the process of discovery.

Cade says learning and doing new things are a great way to “find the joy in life,” which happens to be the theme of the autobiography he now is finishing.

His latest research focuses on children with autism, Down syndrome and certain types of schizophrenia, in whom he has identified a problem that may underlie the intellectual deficits associated with all three diseases. Cade found these children develop excess amounts of morphine-like compounds derived from casein in milk and gliadin from grains. He determined that because the patients are unable to digest these compounds properly, chains of amino acid remain in the brain where they transmit false signals.

Based on his findings to date, Cade said, “It seems possible that we might be able to reverse or at least minimize the adverse effects on intellectual function by putting the youngsters on a diet free of casein and gliadin.”

In earlier studies of children with autism, he demonstrated the effectiveness of a diet free of glutein, casein, milk and grain products. The diet, now applied worldwide, helps about 80 percent of patients improve dramatically or recover completely.

“Throughout his 41-year career at UF, Cade has manifested the unique combination of a practical dreamer and a creative scientist,” Tisher said. “His insatiable curiosity has always been channeled to discover ways to help his fellow man. Although many would point to the development of Gatorade as his greatest achievement, I would submit that his willingness to share his knowledge and good fortune — often with complete strangers — best defines his success.”