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About Mysterious America

This column, hosted by our own Dr. Seymour O'life, goes out of its way to bring you the bizarre, strange, uncanny, and just plain mysterious places that dot this fair land. Perhaps it is a huge Buddha statue in New York or a state park in Pennsylvania, where the stones ring like bells - each month is always a peculiar jewel when it comes to Mysterious America.

John Gorrie Museum State Park

46 Sixth Street, Apalachicola, FL 32320 • 850-653-9347

Wait, warm lemonade? Who wants that? When we think of summer refreshment, the clatter of ice cubes in a glass is one of the first things to come to mind, right? Just imagine how disappointing that lemonade – or ice tea, or soda pop, or even your summer wine cooler – would be without a little bit of ice to keep it cool and satisfying. In fact, ice cubes are so integral in our picture of·summertime activities, it’s hard to imagine a time when iced drinks in the summer where anything but ordinary.

But let’s take a ride back into Mysterious America’s past to a time when things were far different and far more deadly.

The year was 1833 and a young doctor by the name of John Gorrie arrived in the new and booming gulf coastal town of Apalachicola, Florida.

Not more than 20 years old the town had quickly become the third largest port along the coast. Cotton was king and Apalachicola was the major port for plantations and farms in the vast drainage area of the Apalachicola, Flint and
Chattahoochee Rivers in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

John Gorrie quickly became a figure in and around the town and at various times carried the title of postmaster, councilman and mayor of the small city.

But, first and foremost Gorrie was a doctor and in those days, especially in places like Florida, the ravages of Yellow Fever were crushing the local population.Gorrie4

These days we almost ignore this disease but here are the facts - Yellow Fever is an acute viral hemorrhagic disease transmitted by infected mosquitoes. The "yellow" in the name refers to the jaundice that affects some patients. Up to 50% of severely affected persons without treatment will die from yellow fever. The worst is many times symptoms will clear up for a day or so and then the toxic phase comes back with a vengeance and death soon follows.

It is difficult today to imagine just how deadly these outbreaks were, but virtually every Southern city was devastated by them at one
point or another. Not only did Apalachicola suffer enormously, but its neighboring city of St. Joseph was virtually destroyed by the fever.

With Yellow Fever killing his friends and neighbors John Gorrie once again took up his calling of medicine.

Doctors of the time believed that malaria and yellow fever were caused by "bad air." It was a reasonable if incorrect assumption, as fevers seemed most destructive in cities and towns that bordered marshes and swamps.Gorrie2

These days we immediately think mosquitoes as they still transmit death in so many places in the world and diseases like West Nile Virus here in the northeast.

Although Gorrie and his fellow doctors did not know where the fever came from, Gorrie urged draining the swamps, clearing weeds, and maintaining clean food markets in the city. He recommended sleeping under mosquito netting to prevent the disease. Then an odd turn in the weather gave John Gorrie something else to think about.

For weeks it had been hot and humid in northern Florida and along the panhandle until a hurricane passed through bringing with it dramatically cooler and drier air.

Patients that were greatly suffering seemed to fair far better in the cooler temperatures.Gorrie1

Wanting to keep his patients cooler he came up with the idea of using ice in a basin suspended from the ceiling. Cool air, being heavier, flowed down across the patient and through an opening near the floor.

The new technique worked brilliantly and many who would have died from Yellow Fever miraculously survived.

The main problem Gorrie had was that ice was a rare commodity in the southern states, as it had to be shipped from more northerly latitudes.

He turned his talents toward finding a way to create ice artificially, giving up medicine to pursue this in 1845. His new ice machine was about twice the size of a modern household refrigerator, but the principles at work were pretty much the same. Like today’s air conditioners and refrigerators and freezers, the production of ice relies upon what’s called “vapor compression refrigeration.” In May of 1851 Gorrie was granted a patent for his artificial ice-making machine - the first for mechanical refrigeration. Gorrie sought to raise money to manufacture his machine, but the venture failed when his partner died. Northern investors had no interest in seeing their ice monopoly destroyed and Southern investors had difficulty believing that he really could do what he promised.

Humiliated by criticism, financially ruined, and his health broken, Gorrie died in seclusion on June 29, 1855. Gorrie3

This demise reminded me of the great Nikola Tesla’s end. Why does this happen to great men and women?

Gorrie is buried in the square named after him in Apalachicola and his original machine is in the Smithsonian Museum. A replica resides in the Gorrie Museum in Apalachicola.

But, there is more to this story and the reason John Gorrie is part of Mysterious America. When President Garfield lay dying, Navy doctors remembered Gorrie and his cooling machine and used the same principles to keep the President comfortable. After decades people began to look at artificial cooling and ice making once again.

One such person was a Cornell graduate named Willis Carrier. Yes, that Carrier.

He looked at John Gorrie’s work and his machine and began his own quest and that is another story on the roads of Mysterious America. O’Life out!