Dr. John Gorrie – The Florida Ice Man

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A name not easily recalled yet recognized as one of the major scientists and inventors of the early 19th century, Dr. John Gorrie, developed artificial ice in Florida.

One doesn’t associate ‘ice’ and Florida in the same breath, but that is the case with Dr. John Gorrie in the first half of the 1800s. He is credited with developing the first ice-making procedure. This would be the earliest practical method of manufacturing ice which would eventually guide others to developing the cold-air process of refrigeration.

Move to Florida in 1830s

John Gorrie was born 1803 and raised in Charleston, South Carolina and able to study in the mid-1820s to become a medical doctor. He started his practice in South Carolina, but moved to the northern region of Florida around the town of Sneads in 1831 and later to the town of Apalachicola to specialize in tropical diseases. This second Florida town was a major gulf port in the 1830s and only located 80 miles southwest of Tallahassee. He served as the mayor of Apalachicola in 1837 and pushed for the draining of the swamp areas and keeping the food market areas clean. In 1838 he married the widowed owner of the Florida Hotel in Apalachicola.

Malaria and Yellow Fever

This region along the coast suffered from frequented outbreaks of deadly diseases. In 1841, yellow fever struck the Apalachicola area. As a medical doctor Gorrie needed a method to treat patients who suffered with malaria and yellow fever, two of the most rampant diseases along the Gulf coast. He felt that coolness would help his patients. By keeping rooms and the patients cool, this assisted in reducing the patient’s fever. Unfortunately, ice was a very rare commodity especially during the hot weather months. Usually it came by ships packed in sawdust from the northern lakes between the United States and Canada and sold for nearly $1.50 a pound.

Practical Solution

So Dr. Gorrie developed a method to keep an area stocked with ice, even in the warmest environments. He developed the first ice making procedure, which was the first original practical method of manufacturing ice. This was achieved with cooling caused by the rapid expansion of gases. Compressed air had a small amount of water fed through a tank of brine which caused ice to form. Dr. Gorrie then used rain water placed to brick shaped holders to be frozen and produce brick-shaped blocks of ice.

It produced large qualities of ice, but there were still problems with the invention such as leakage. His patented invention would eventually be in the forefront of the commercial production of refrigeration and air conditioning units, all essential elements in the present Florida life-style.

Patent

A patent petition was filed on February 27, 1848, just after Florida became a state. The first patent was issued in London, England in 1850 and then his official U.S. Patent # 8080 for mechanical refrigeration came in May 1851. Tragically, Dr. Gorrie only lived until June 29,1855 when he was stricken with a fever and never witnessed the full potential of his invention. It was an American businessman, Alexander C. Twinning in 1856 who further developed the ice-making procedure into commercial ice-making. The concept later led to cold-air process of refrigeration and then air-conditioning.

Future Honor

Gorrie’s original machine and some of his scientist writings are now housed at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D. C. A statue of Dr. Gorrie, made in the 1910s by Charles Adrian Pillars, authorized by the State of Florida is only one of two Floridians honored with a statue in the U. S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC. In Apalachicola, Florida today is the John Gorrie State Museum at 6th St. and Ave. D. All fitting remembrances to the man who helped ‘cool’ Florida.

Sources:

  1. Know Southern History
  2. The Fever Man: a Biography of Dr. John Gorrie, by V. M. Sherlock, Medallion Press, 1982.