College of Health and Human Performance

A Q&A with HHP alumna Linda Hansen Caldwell and the story of Dr. John Gorrie

He Made Ice and Changed the World: Dr. John Gorrie, "Father of Refrigeration and Air Conditioning"

A Q&A with HHP alumna Linda Hansen Caldwell and the story of Dr. John Gorrie

pictured above: Joshua Hodson, John Gorrie State Park manager; Linda Hansen Caldwell (BSPE ’76) 

By Kyle Chambers

Linda Hansen Caldwell (BSPE ’76) is no stranger to discovering how far her curiosity can take her when it comes to learning new things. After decades of research, the HHP alumna recently published a book detailing the life and contributions of Dr. John Gorrie (1803-1855), a Floridian recognized as “the father of refrigeration and air conditioning.”

“Gorrie lived a short life, but during those years he accomplished more in the science of medicine and public health education than anyone else in his day, even those that practiced medicine for much longer,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell comes from a family of educators and grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. She was a member of the inaugural Gators volleyball team and credits HHP faculty with helping shape her career and life. In an interview with HHP, Caldwell detailed what inspired her to write Dr. Gorrie's biography and how his work is relevant today.

What sparked your interest in Dr. John Gorrie?

During my teaching career, I was transferred to John Gorrie Jr. High School in Jacksonville, Florida, to teach health education and science. My primary assignment was health education. Despite the fact that I became certified to teach biological sciences, health education and physical education, and had taken all of my coursework at the University of Florida, I had no knowledge of Dr. John Gorrie even though the College of Medicine presents their most outstanding graduate with the John Gorrie Award each year. 

When I became employed at John Gorrie Jr. High School, I wondered, "Who was John Gorrie?" I asked colleagues, who replied, “He invented air conditioning.” I thought that to be ironic because we had no air conditioning in this school and it was 1980! There was no internet in those days, so I went to the school library and pulled an encyclopedia off the shelf. What I read astonished me. Dr. Gorrie didn’t simply invent air conditioning; he was among our greatest humanitarians and he was also a public health educator. This was amazing! I hit the "jackpot" for teaching assignments. I would be teaching health education and science in a school that was named for one of Florida’s first health educators. This transfer was truly one of the best things that could have happened to me!      

Were you interested in science when you were younger? 

I was always very interested in science. As a child, I was interested in my father’s work in law enforcement forensics, I wanted to know how he solved crimes. I collected insects and observed animals. When our home well was drilled, I was interested in all of the layers they would be drilling through. As a youngster, I conducted experiments in my home and while other children would run from a lizard, I wanted to catch it and study it. I remember being disappointed in the fact that I couldn’t find enough science books in my school library.

I became interested in health education and this interest intertwined with other scientific interests. Many of my family members suffered from illnesses that could have been easily prevented if they had made better lifestyle decisions. I was particularly interested in addiction because several of my family members were addicted to tobacco, among other things. 

My father was the first person to have an aortic implant placed in an experimental and very risky surgery. This surgery took place in 1967 and was of 18 hours’ duration. Being under a general anesthetic for 18 hours was almost unheard of in 1967. He suffered from high-aortoiliac occlusive disease and there was no choice but to undergo the surgery if he wanted to live. The implant was made of Dacron and it was designed to completely replace his aorta. This disease was definitely lifestyle-related.

My interest in health education spiked even more when my father, after spending two months in the hospital, stopped on the way home from the hospital to purchase cigarettes! I just knew I had to learn more about health education. How could anyone, after surviving such a risky surgical procedure, buy a pack of cigarettes and resume smoking again? How could this addiction be more important than your life, your family and your children? I just didn’t understand it. I was only 13 years old when this happened, but this experience was a huge factor in determining what I would do with my life.

How would you say Dr. Gorrie's work relates to the present day and the COVID-19 pandemic?

I have often thought about that! I was thinking, wouldn’t it be great if Dr. Gorrie, who fought epidemics of malaria and yellow fever, could come out from behind that blue curtain at the White House and add his “two cents worth” to the coronavirus news conferences? Dr. Gorrie’s scientific studies were crude because his capabilities to study microorganisms were very limited. He was working under very unenviable conditions. When you consider that this man never actually viewed a malaria plasmodium or a yellow fever virus, he fought these epidemics with everything he had.

Since Dr. Gorrie didn’t know what caused these epidemics, he had little ability to control their occurrence. Being a public health educator was quite difficult during the mid-19th century. Superstition and old wives tales were commonly believed. This was a time when people shot off cannons or burned sulfur to clear the air, and wore clothes soaked in garlic and vinegar, all in effort to prevent disease.  

While most scientists and physicians of Gorrie’s day were merely interested in cures, Dr. Gorrie was most interested in the causes of tropical disease epidemics, Dr. Gorrie was quite unique: he wanted to prevent illnesses in the first place. He said, “Prevention is always preferable to cure.” In today’s situation with the coronavirus, he would be concentrating on prevention. He would advocate for any measures that he believed would prevent the transmission of the disease- causing agent. 

What would you say is Dr. Gorrie's greatest contribution to Florida?

I am in the process of nominating Dr. Gorrie for the Presidential Citizens Award Medal. To qualify for this medal, an individual has to have accomplished great things not just for his community, state, and nation, but he or she has to have done something that benefitted the entire world. Dr. Gorrie did just that – he has been officially recognized as “the father of refrigeration and air conditioning.” Think about this: what’s the first thing we miss here in Florida following an extended power outage? Ice, refrigeration and air conditioning. We value these things for our comfort, but there are also some very practical reasons why we need ice, refrigeration and air conditioning. Because we have refrigeration, ice and air conditioning, the lives of people all over the world have greatly benefitted. As an example, we cannot transport blood, tissues, and organs without refrigeration.

Prior to ice and refrigeration, food poisoning was a common and a frequent cause of death. This was especially true when the food supply was limited. Vast amounts of food would be discarded every day were it not for refrigeration. Refrigeration is very valuable to our agriculture industry. Prior to refrigeration, our seafood industry could only preserve seafood by canning, salting or smoking. We know that these methods of preservation are less than healthy. Florida has a booming seafood industry and its success depends upon refrigeration and ice. 

What advice would you offer students regarding pursuing their passions?

  1. When others discourage you, question you and even berate you, understand this: There will always those who will seek to discourage you as you work toward an admirable goal. When that happens, make another goal; that being to ignore them.
  2. Remember that while others may not believe in you, your abilities or your passions, you should persevere. 
  3. Always keep an eye on your goal but maintain a healthy balance in all other aspects of your life. Your work should allow you time to maintain your physical fitness, enjoy friendships, family relationships and pursue other opportunities. 
  4. If you hit a roadblock, it can be wise to step back from your goal and take a break. When you do this, inspiration and motivation are sure to find you. I know that from experience. 

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