John Gorrie

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John Gorrie

John Gorrie (1803-1855) was granted the first U.S.patent for mechanical refrigeration. As a physician in Florida during the outbreak of the malaria epidemic, Gorrie set about on his mission to create artificial cooling as a matter of medical urgency to cure his patients of a disease he believed was caused by extreme heat and humidity.

Gorrie was born on October 3, 1802 (or 1803). Whereas most accounts list his birthplace as Charleston, South Carolina, and his heritage that of Scotch-Irish, others speculate that Gorrie, who had an olive complexion and dark hair and eyes, was born in Charlestown, a city on the island of Nevis in the West Indies. According to this possible scenario, Gorrie's mother, whose identity is unknown, fled from Spain to the West Indies, where she gave birth to Gorrie out of wedlock. When Gorrie was between 12 and 18 months old, he and his mother moved to Charleston, South Carolina with Captain Gorrie, a Scots officer who was serving in the Spanish navy. Gorrie and his mother remained in Charleston after Captain Gorrie returned to sea. However, they continued to receive support from the Captain until Gorrie graduated from college.

Little light is shed on Gorrie's early life by his college records, which lists his hometown as Columbia, South Carolina. However, no records exist that place Gorrie, his mother, or Captain Gorrie at any of the locations of Charleston, South Carolina; Charlestown, West Indies; or Columbia, South Carolina. By some accounts he apprenticed for a year with a Columbia apothecary in 1824. In 1825 he enrolled in the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Western District of the State of New York at Fairfield, in Herkimer County. Although the school was only open for a few decades, it had a significant impact on the development of science in the United States. Asa Gray, who became the leading American botanist, was serving as an assistant in the chemical department during the time Gorrie attended the college and later remembered Gorrie as a promising student. In 1827, Gorrie earned his medical degree, submitting his thesis on neuralgia.

Life in Apalachicola

Upon graduating, Gorrie opened his first medical practice in Abbeville, South Carolina, before moving with his mother to Sneads, Florida in 1831. Within two years his mother died, and in 1833, he moved to Apalachicola, Florida. A growing, bustling Gulf Coast city, Apalachicola was at that time the third largest port on the eastern seaboard, serving as a primary location for the export of cotton. Gorrie supplemented his income from his medical practice by taking on a variety of civic duties. He began serving as assistant postmaster in 1834, and before the end of the year, he was named postmaster. He held this position from November 24, 1834 to July 18, 1838, for which he received $121.50 a year. In 1835 the U.S. Supreme Court granted the Apalachicola Land Company a clear title to the area. During this time, the city grid plans were designed in a style similar to the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the same year Gorrie became a notary public and was elected to the Apalachicola City Council after which he was appointed chairperson and city treasurer. He subsequently held the office of vice intendant and, on January 21, 1837, was elected intendant (mayor) of Apalachicola. During this period of development, Gorrie was a strong advocate for land development, especially such public health-related issues as swamp draining and weed clearance.

Gorrie's activities spread further into community service and business. After serving on the founding committee of the Masonic Lodge in 1835, Gorrie was appointed secretary pro-tem on December 28, 1835 and later served as treasurer. He was a partner in the Mansion House Hotel, built in 1836, of which he owned a one-fifth interest. He was president of the Apalachicola branch of the Bank of Pensacola (1836), a founding member of the Marine Insurance Bank of Apalachicola (1837), and director of the Apalachicola Mutual Insurance Company (1840). Gorrie was also a charter member in the establishment of Apalachicola's Trinity Episcopal Church; however, he was not an overtly religious man and did not purchase a pew as was the custom of the day for the most devout and wealthy.

Developed Artificial Cooling

In 1837 Gorrie became the attending physician for the Marine Hospital Service of the U.S. Treasury Department, a position he held until 1844. On May 8, 1838, Gorrie married Caroline Frances Myrick Beman, a widowed mother with a young daughter. Beman was a native of Columbia, South Carolina, and the proprietress of the Florida Hotel in Apalachicola; they had two children. Shortly after their marriage, Gorrie and his new wife left Apalachicola and did not return until 1840. In 1841 Gorrie became Justice of the Peace. In the same year, the malaria and yellow fever epidemic came to Apalachicola, and Gorrie turned his full attention to finding a cure for the diseases. He resigned from all his civic responsibilities and substantially decreased the number of patients he saw to spend more time studying the possible cause and cure for the deadly illnesses, which thrived in the subtropic climate.

At the onset, malaria brought violent shakes and chills, followed by high fever and terrible sweats. Sometimes deadly, malaria could recur in victims who survived. In cases of yellow fever, however, victims of the disease either lived or died—as it did not recur. Yellow fever came in waves and killed anywhere between 12 to 70 percent of those infected. It began with high fever, shivering, unbearable thirst, terrible headaches, and severe pain in the back and legs. After about 24 hours, the victims would become jaundiced, turning yellow in color. In the final stages of the disease, victims vomited blood (called "black vomit" or vomito negro), their temperature would fall so low that they felt cool to the touch, and their pulse rate slowed. Death usually followed within hours. People were so terrified of malaria and yellow fever that the bodies of those who died would be quickly burned, the area quarantined, and yellow flags hung. Other preventative measures included hanging gauze over the patients beds, wearing handkerchiefs soaked in vinegar over the mouth, drenching bed linens in camphor, burning sulfur or gunpowder outside the house, and wearing garlic in shoes.

The term malaria means "bad air" in Italian. Mosquitoes were later found to be the source of its transmission. At the time it was mistakenly believed that the rapid decomposition of vegetation in the hot, humid air of the low-lying subtropical areas created a poisonous gas in which the disease developed. Gorrie theorized that the swiftly decaying organic matter created poisonous oil. As a result of this belief, Gorrie developed a two-fold attack. First, he encouraged the population to make all efforts possible to eliminate the decay by filling in wet, low-lying areas and draining elevated wetlands. Second, and more significantly, he began to develop a way to control his patients' body temperatures by controlling the temperature and humidity levels of the hospital rooms.

At that time, ice was a rare commodity in the warm climate of the South. Cut from the northern lakes during winter, ice was stored in underground icehouses, packed in sawdust, and transported via ship around Florida to the Gulf Coast shore. Hardly a convenient or practical method of cooling, Gorrie started work on a method of artificial cooling. His research led to the invention of an ice-making machine. Developed between 1838 and 1845, Gorrie created a machine that compressed air in a chamber. The air was then released to expand rapidly, causing it to absorb the heat from water that surrounded the chamber. The compressed air drew enough heat away from the water to bring the water temperature down below freezing, thus creating ice.

By 1845 Gorrie had completely abandoned his medical practice to concentrate on his invention. In the same year he finalized the design of his ice machine. In 1848 he commissioned the Cincinnati Iron Works, located in Cincinnati, Ohio, to build a working model. By October 1848, the model was completed and Gorrie began demonstrating its ability. On February 27, 1848, he filed for a U.S. patent, which was granted on May 6, 1851 as U.S. Patent No. 8080, "Improved process for the artificial production of ice." He also received a British patent, issued as London Patent No. 13,124 on August 22, 1850.

Financial Failings

While developing his invention, Gorrie began publishing articles on malaria, cooling systems, and ice production. As early as 1840 he wrote a series of articles entitled "Equilibrium of Temperature as a Cure of Pulmonary Consumption," which appeared in the New York Lancet. During April 1844, he submitted 11 articles on malaria to the Apalachicola Commercial Advertiser. His article, "On the Quantity of Heat Evolved from Atmospheric Air by Mechanical Compression," appeared in the American Journal of Science in 1850. On two occasions, in 1854 and 1855, the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal published a series of articles written by Gorrie. Finally, in 1854 he produced a pamphlet to promote his ice machine entitled Dr. John Gorrie's Apparatus for the Artificial Production of Ice in Tropical Climates.

Despite the significance of the development of a means of artificial cooling, Gorrie never profited from his invention. Newspapers in the North denounced his claims and ridiculed his efforts. Fearing lost profits, the northern ice suppliers, who monopolized the ice market, lobbied strongly against Gorrie. Additionally, because Gorrie's ice-making machine was an imperfect prototype, it sometimes did not operate correctly. For whatever reason, perhaps a combination of factors, Gorrie could not find financial backing for his invention. Unfortunately his own financial situation became quite precarious after being sued by a London debt collector for unpaid interest amounting to over $6,500. He made an unsuccessful trip across the South in search of financial backing for the commercial production of ice. With no financial support for his invention, Gorrie was forced to sell half of his interest in the ice machine to a businessman from New Orleans. However, the investor died suddenly before providing Gorrie with any funds. The frustrating situation took an emotional toll on Gorrie, who suffered a nervous breakdown from which he never recovered. He died at the age of 54, on June 16, 1855. He is buried in Gorrie Square in Apalachicola, Florida.

Gorrie's personal papers were destroyed in 1860 in the midst of the U.S. Civil War. In 1914 the state of Florida recognized his contribution by erecting Gorrie's statue in the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall. Florida also established the John Gorrie State Museum in Apalachicola. Although unsuccessful in his attempts to create large-scale production of ice, Gorrie's work paved the way for further development. Much of modern refrigeration and ice production is still largely based on the basic principle employed by Gorrie.


American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Concise Dictionary of American Biography. Fourth edition. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990.

Schapsmeier, Edward L. and Frederick H. Encyclopedia of American Agricultural History. Greenwood Press, 1975.

World of Invention. 2nd edition. Edited by Kimberley A. McGrath, Gale Research, 1999.


"John Gorrie," Apalachicola Area Historical Society, Inc. 3, 2001).

"Gorrie, John." Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1995. 3, 2001).

"John Gorrie." Dictionary of American Biography. Base set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936. 3, 2001). □

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John Gorrie

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