May 6, 2011

Ahead of his time

When John Gorrie graduated from medical school in 1833, he accepted a job offer in Apalachicola on the Gulf coast of Florida. He ran two hospitals and continued his research on tropical diseases while serving variously as member of the city council, postmaster, vestryman of the Episcopal church, secretary of the Masonic Lodge and president of the bank.


Like many medical men of his time, Gorrie attributed disease to bad air and the air in Apalachicola could get pretty bad, what with the heat and humidity and the noisome mainstay of the economy – oyster and shrimp fishing. ( Apalachicola still produces about 90% of Florida’s oysters.)

Dr. Gorrie wanted his patients to have cooler and therefore healthier air, so he started experimenting with ways to create it.  He tried suspending containers of ice from the ceiling and allowing the air to flow naturally to an opening in the floor.

But the cost of ice – imported from the north – was prohibitive, so the next logical step was to develop artificial ice, which Gorrie tried.  His experiments began to take up so much of his time that by 1845 he had effectively quit practicing medicine and on May 6, 1851, he filed a patent for the first machine to produce artificial ice. At that point, he ran out of money and began to look for a partner to help fund the manufacture of his machine.

The Gorrie Ice museum, photo by Ebyabe

He found one, but the man died and Gorrie had to look for help yet again.  And that was when he ran into the force that was Frederic Tudor.

Fred Tudor came from a Brahmin family in Boston.  His father was an attorney, his brother a literary figure of some repute, but Fred passed on the chance to go to Harvard and dropped out of school as soon as he could to go into commerce. By 1810, he was in the ice business and had bought his first ship to carry ice from the ponds of Massachusetts to the Caribbean.

It was a long time before Tudor was the ‘Ice King’ – he made and lost money for years, was for a time in debtors’ prison – but finally, by the 1840s, with the advent of machinery to cut ice and railroads to carry it, he began to make money.

Fred Tudor

Fred Tudor was clearly a man of ambition and gumption and so the theory (put forward by Gorrie biographer Vivian Sherlock) that it was Tudor’s slander that stymied John Gorrie’s plans is entirely believable – it wasn’t likely that the ‘Ice King,’ whose ships were sailing up the Ganges loaded with New England pond ice, was going to let someone with an ice machine do him in.

Ice harvesting on Spy Pond in Arlington MA, 1854.

In any event, Gorrie could not get anyone to back him and his machine.  He died penniless in 1855 and it would be another half century before Willis Haviland Carrier received a patent for his ‘Apparatus for Treating Air.’



  1. very interesting! carrier, huh? thanks, yet again.


    Comment by ursel — May 6, 2011 @ 6:41 am | Reply

  2. chilling story. thank you.


    Comment by avery — May 6, 2011 @ 7:20 am | Reply

  3. UGH!! People dying before their passion imbued inventions can be realized! Then other people profiting from those very life changing inventions. As Avery has said,”a very chilling story.”


    Comment by GALYA TARMU — May 6, 2011 @ 8:57 am | Reply

  4. some authentically nice and utilitarian facts on this internet site , likewise I believe the style has got superb features. I love this post. Very well written.


    Comment by Cedric Schlereth — May 6, 2011 @ 12:35 pm | Reply

  5. awesome 😉


    Comment by nina c — May 6, 2011 @ 11:45 pm | Reply

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