Born on the Island of Nevis to Scottish parents on October 3, 1803, he spent his childhood in South Carolina. He received his medical education at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Western District of New York in Fairfield, New York. In 1833, he moved to Apalachicola, Florida, a port city on the Gulf coast. As well as being resident physician at two hospitals, Gorrie was active in the community. At various times he served as a council member, Postmaster, President of the Bank of Pensacola's Apalachicola Branch, Secretary of the Masonic Lodge, and was one of the founding vestrymen of Trinity Episcopal Church.
Dr. Gorrie's medical research involved the study of tropical diseases. At the time the theory that bad air caused diseases was a prevalent hypothesis and based on this theory, he urged draining the swamps and the cooling of sickrooms.  For this he cooled rooms with ice in a basin suspended from the ceiling. Cool air, being heavier, flowed down across the patient and through an opening near the floor. Since ice had to be brought by boat from the northern lakes, Gorrie experimented with making artificial ice.
After 1845, he gave up his medical practice to pursue refrigeration projects. On May 6, 1851, Gorrie was granted Patent No. 8080 for a machine to make ice. The original model of this machine and the scientific articles he wrote are at the Smithsonian Institution. Impoverished, Gorrie sought to raise money to manufacture his machine, but the venture failed when his partner died. Humiliated by criticism, financially ruined, and his health broken, Gorrie died in seclusion on June 29, 1855. He is buried in Gorrie Square in Apalachicola.
Another version of Gorrie’s “cooling system” was used when President James A. Garfield was dying in 1881. Naval engineers built a box filled with cloths that had been soaked in melted ice water. Then by allowing hot air to blow on the cloths it decreased the room temperature by 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The problem with this method was essentially the same problem Gorrie had. It required an enormous amount of ice to keep the room cooled continuously. Yet it was an important event in the history of air conditioning. It proved that Dr. Gorrie had the right idea, but unfortunately was unable to capitalize on it.
According to Dr. Gorrie's biographer, Vivian M. Sherlock, the "Ice King", Frederic Tudor, was suspected for causing his failure when he launched a smear campaign against the invention.
Dr. Gorrie died impoverished in 1855 and the idea of air conditioning faded away for 50 years.
Monuments and memorials
- In Apalachicola, Gorrie Square is named in his honor. The square contains his grave site, a monument, the John Gorrie State Museum, and the Apalachicola Municipal Library.
- The John Gorrie Bridge across Apalachicola Bay, connects Apalachicola with Eastpoint.
- In 1914, the state of Florida gave a statue of Gorrie to the National Statuary Hall Collection.
- John Gorrie Junior High School in Jacksonville and John Gorrie Elementary School in Tampa are named in his honor.
- The SS John Gorrie, a liberty ship, was named in his honor.
- The John Gorrie Award is awarded each year to a graduate of the University of Florida College of Medicine believed to be the “best all-around student showing promise of becoming a practitioner of the highest type.”
- Raymond B. Becker. John Gorrie, M.D.: Father of Air Conditioning and Mechanical Refrigeration, Carlton Press, 1972.
- John Gladstone. John Gorrie, the Visionary, ASHRAE Journal, December 1998. PDF file
- V. M. Sherlock. The Fever Man: a Biography of Dr. John Gorrie, Medallion Press: 1982.
- Elli Morris, "Cooling the South: The Block Ice Era, 1875-1975", Wackophoto, 2008.