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New bio highlights Gorrie’s public health work

David Adlerstein
The Apalach Times
The Apalach Times

For the first time in nearly four decades, a new biography has appeared of famed Apalachicola inventor Dr. John Gorrie, and it’s as welcome as an ice cube in a lukewarm drink, or air-conditioning on a sweltering summer day.

Linda Hansen Caldwell’s new paperback “He Made Ice and Changed the World: The Story of Florida’s John Gorrie” (Atlantic Publishing Group) packs its 150 pages with a wealth of detail, further advancing the work of Vivian Sherlock, whose 1982 bio “The Fever Man” has long been the go-to guide to the life of a man who, in his 52 years, pioneered the invention of the manufacture of ice, refrigeration and air conditioning.

A Jacksonville native and 1976 graduate of the University of Florida, Caldwell first become interested in Gorrie when, fresh out of college. She took a job teaching at John Gorrie Junior High School in her native Duval County.

She hadn’t heard of Gorrie but when she read up on him, turning to Sherlock’s work, she found herself impressed with his work, and struck by the fact Gorrie Junior High was the only school in the county not to be air-conditioned.

“How ironic, I thought,” she writes in her book. “It seemed like this school would be first on the list when it came to air conditioning.”

Over time, whenever the curriculum called for it, she found herself teaching students about Gorrie. Three years ago, after learning Sherlock’s work was out of print, Caldwell decided to set about writing her biography, particularly focusing on Gorrie’s contribution to science while putting together as much of the history of his life as can be gleaned, given a limited array of primary sources.

Caldwell does her best to balance murky and often conflicting details of Gorrie’s origins, who was born in 1803, some say 1802, in the West Indies to a Spanish woman, perhaps even a slave, who may have been escorted to the island by a Capt. Gorrie, a Spanish military officer

Birth records are scant, and much mystery surrounds the famed inventor’s birth. He was reported to have once confided in his friend, botanist Alvan Chapman, that he suspected he was his mother’s illegitimate son, who took the surname Gorrie for the sake of appearances.

Whether Gorrie was in fact born in Charleston, South Carolina of a more conventional American family, or indeed came from exotic stock when he was born in Charlestown, on the island of Kitts and Nevis, Caldwell does her best to unravel, and it fascinates.

She then traces Gorrie’s career, working to detail his contribution to public health that she shows gave rise to his famed invention.

“Gorrie’s inventions were ahead of their time, so were not truly recognized and appreciated until decades after his death,” she wrote. “Dr. Gorrie had another passion, however; this truly remarkable and multi-faceted individual had another passion - public health education.”

In his foreword, Dr. Robert Watson, a distinguished professor of medicine at Florida State University writes that “Gorrie practiced medicine for only 18 years, but during those years he accomplished more in both the art and science of medicine than physicians who practiced for decades longer. He provided care to his patients and cared about them, their families, and his community.

“Dr. Gorrie utilized the most up-to-date treatments available during the mid-19th century but also recognized that prevention of illness was more important than cure and that many more lives could be saved through prevention, rather than treatment,” he wrote. “His tireless efforts were not driven by fame and fortune, but by compassion and dedication, a desire to prevent illness, and a concern for community health.”

En route to inventing the first machine to make cooled, compressed air, so as to treat patients with raging temperatures, Gorrie had written that “Nature would terminate the fevers by the changing of the seasons.” When the weather cooled in the fall, winter, and spring, and the incidences of malaria and yellow fever dropped to virtually zero, Gorrie theorized that “bad air,” very warm air from the wetland areas, caused the illnesses associated with the fevers.

Noting that the overwhelming belief of physicians in Gorrie’s day was that gases created by plants in the swamps caused tropical diseases, Caldwell observes that a mild winter meant greater plant growth in the swamps, so the incidence of tropical disease was expected to be greater.

“While Dr. Gorrie respected their opinion, he kept looking for another answer,” she wrote. “We now know that a mild winter means more mosquito larvae will survive, so we may have more mosquitos in the warmer times of the year.

“Dr. Gorrie didn’t really know why this ‘bad air’ caused disease, although he utilized logical reasoning and the scientific method to come up with what he thought was the answer,” Caldwell wrote. “Dr. Gorrie was able to rely on his microscope for some observations, but his microscope was not able to help him visualize the organisms that caused tropical diseases.

“He would remind others that overeating, and overdrinking lessened resistance to disease,” she wrote, noting he had claimed all diseases “stem from three principle causes—atmospheric impurity, contagion, and debauchery.

“Each day, as young Gorrie worked in the apothecary (his job prior to going to medical school), he peered out the windows as he worked,” wrote Caldwell, in her warm, engaging style. “He witnessed the long procession of horse-drawn wagons hauling the dead to the cemetery for burial. Certainly, he could tell that the public, at large, was suffering and he was ‘called’ to do something about it, early in his life.”

Caldwell details Gorrie’s comparatively crude methods of analysis, and the vast superstitions that often permeated the pseudo-scientific beliefs of his day.

“People believed that getting ‘chilled’ or going to sleep with wet hair caused pneumonia or colds,” she wrote. “People were of the belief that handling a toad or touching water that had been used to boil eggs would cause warts. It was believed a pregnant woman who raised her arms above the head would lose her pregnancy or have a stillbirth. Pregnant women were warned not to eat acidic fruits (like citrus or tomatoes) because it would but acid ‘burns’ on the baby’s face.

“People believed that the fungal infection called ringworm was actually caused by a real worm circling about under the skin,” Caldwell writes. “This was a time when soaking handkerchiefs in vinegar and garlic juices, and then putting them in your shoes, putting garlic pieces in your shoes, wearing garlic around your neck, burning sulphur and, even shooting off cannons, was thought to prevent disease.”

Not long after Gorrie arrived in Apalachicola, a local newspaper learned of his concern for public health, especially concerning sanitation practices. The editor of The Gazette, asked him for a statement addressing his concerns, and he agreed to provide one.

“I consider it of first importance, he advised, that the present wharves be removed… and a solid line built from the highest place to the lowest place. The new wharves would be filled not with wood or mud, but with stone ballast,” Caldwell shares in her bio.

Gorrie also suggested the dry culture of the low grounds surrounding the margin of the bay be addressed, “not by rooting up all vegetation in sight, (but) for growing plants that are the means by which nature purifies the air.”

He warned that “the proprietors may drain and fill up every wet place within miles of the city; the city may advise and enforce a rigid medical police, but unless every citizen lends a healthy concurrence and assistance, malarial complaints will prevail. Local causes, always adequate to the production of endemic fever, are, to the great majority, the sole cause.”

Caldwell’s premise is that Gorrie’s entrance into local government, as a city councilman, and later mayor, was directly related to his concerns about public health.

“As a physician, he had no real platform by which to influence public health. Once he became elected official, his public health concerns had a much greater audience,” she wrote. “As a first priority, he hoped to persuade those able to provide money to build a public hospital that could serve indigent citizens, perhaps through a poor tax.

“For years he was disgusted at the sight of meats and fish rotting in the markets. Fruits and vegetables surrounded by flies, way past ripeness were equally upsetting,” Caldwell wrote. “Dr. Gorrie felt that, unless all-around public health conditions improved, there was no real reason for him to serve as mayor. In the position of mayor he became a more-effective public health educator.”

Among Gorrie’s successes was the passage by the city council of an ordinance requiring regular inspection by the city marshal, of markets, which would be open from daybreak to 10 a.m. with no meat allowed to remain in the market after closing hours. A second ordinance provided all cotton on the wharves be removed within two days of its arrival. Neither ordinance was favored by those with strict schedules or who had to hire additional workers to meet the requirements.

To further educate the public about the dangers of the fevers, Gorrie assumed the pen name “Jenner” and published a series of 11 newspaper articles entitled “On the Prevention of Malarial Disease.” Caldwell speculates that the name might have come from the famed discoverer of the smallpox vaccine, or could have been because as postmaster, Gorrie was aware there was no one in town by that surname. “He wanted someone else to profess the same information with regard to health education and disease prevention,” she wrote.

“Dr. Gorrie was known to take long walks along the bay, each evening,” she wrote. “What was he thinking about? He was probably thinking about his fellow man. He was thinking of ways to prevent and cure disease. He was thinking of ways to effectively educate the public concerning health and wellness. He was thinking about his aspirations and goals to serve the public. He put the needs of everyone else before himself. He was a quiet and humble man.”

Signed copies of Caldwell’s new biography can be obtained by emailing her at gorriebiography@gmail.com. The cost, including shipping and handling, runs $26.29.

Effort on to secure medal for Gorrie

Author Linda Hansen Caldwell has been busy securing support for awarding Dr. Gorrie the Presidential Citizens Medal, the government’s second highest civilian award, which is presented to recognize those “who have performed exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens.”

In her application, Caldwell has outlined how Gorrie meets all of the medal’s criteria, along with 106 letters and emails from individuals and groups in support of the nomination.

Among those who have written in support have been John Gorrie State Park, the Save Our Squares of Apalachicola, the Apalachicola Area Historical Society, alumni of John Gorrie Elementary and Junior High, County Commissioner Ricky Jones, Congressman Neal Dunn, former Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson, Vivian Sherlock’s great-niece, and Florida State professor Dr. Robert Watson.