Dr. John Gorrie is credited with the invention
of the mechanical refrigeration
system, which forever changed mankind's food preservation methods and actualized the concept of climate control. Its subsequent development by numerous other scientists has been recognized by the National Academy of Engineers as the 10th greatest achievement of the 20th century
Dr. Gorrie was born October 3, 1803 in Charleston, South Carolina, and received his medical education in Fairfield, New York. He initially practiced medicine in Abbeville, South Carolina, but moved to Apalachicola, Florida in 1833 in his pursuit of the study of tropical diseases. At the time, Apalachicola was flourishing as the third largest port on the Gulf of Mexico, harboring large ships that carried cotton to Europe and New England. While residing in the port town, Gorrie served as mayor, postmaster, city treasurer, council member, bank director and founder of Trinity Church. While very active in the community, his most important work was as a doctor.
Apalachicola experienced an outbreak of yellow fever nearly every summer. After studying the relationship between climate and public health, Dr. Gorrie recommended that the low-lying marshy areas around the town be drained. His medical training had led him to believe that marshy areas gave off "miasma" gasses, which was believed to cause disease. Since Apalachicola's population was booming, Gorrie also prompted local officials to construct a hospital. His concern for yellow fever patients later inspired him to search for a method to cool the hospital rooms. He had noted that hot, humid weather also seemed to be conducive to malaria outbreaks.
His first attempt at what we now know as "air conditioning" consisted of placing bowls of ice around the hospital with a fan circulating the air. Since ice had to be brought by boat from the northern lakes, and as such was a scarce and expensive commodity, Gorrie experimented with making artificial ice. Using his knowledge of compressed gasses and steam engines, Gorrie eventually produced a machine that made ice in small quantities. In 1845, he gave up his medical practice to pursue his refrigeration projects.
On Bastille Day in 1850, Dr. Gorrie served ice-chilled champagne for the French Consul at the Mansion House Hotel, the first public showing of his invention. Patents were granted to Gorrie for a machine to make ice on August 22, 1850 (London Patent No. 13,124), and on May 6, 1851 (U.S. Patent No. 8080). The original machines and the scientific articles written by Gorrie are on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC and the John Gorrie Museum in Apalachicola.
Sadly, the public found Dr. Gorrie's claim of artifical ice production hard to accept, and in spite of all his efforts, he was unable to get the financial backing he needed to mass produce his machine. Embarrassed by all the criticism, financially ruined and struck with illness, Gorrie died in seclusion on June 29, 1855. In the end, he was unable to market his invention and he died long before he could witness the far-reaching effects of his discovery.
Apalachicola Times. John Gorrie Museum. http://www.apalachtimes.com/gorrie.shtml
James Burke. Connections. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1995
George L. Chapel. Gorrie's Fridge. http://www.phys.ufl.edu/~ihas/fridge.html
National Academy of Engineers. Greatest Achievements – 10. Air Conditioning and Refrigeration. http://www.greatachievements.org/greatachievements/ga_10_1.html
The Architecture of the Capitol. John Gorrie Statue in the National Statuary Hall. http://www.aoc.gov/cc/art/nsh/gorrie.htm
Source compilation was aided by F. Richard Holland Jr.