Meredith Charles Gourdine (pictured left in the photo) won a silver medal in the long jump in the 1952 Olympics and then applied that same competitive drive to science.

Gourdine, an African-American physicist and engineer, became an expert in electrogasdynamics and developed commercial uses for the technology, first, as an employee at a research-and-development firm and later as head of two companies. During his career he received more than 30 patents.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, on 26 September 1929, Gourdine was raised in Brooklyn and Harlem. His father, a painter and a janitor, placed a high priority on education. Although the senior Gourdine was determined to teach his son the value of hard work--Meredith accompanied his father to work each day after school--he valued education more. According to a 1999 New York Times article, Gourdine recalled his father’s words. “My father said, ‘If you don't want to be a laborer all your life, stay in school.’ The lesson took.”

After finishing high school, Gourdine entered Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, where he excelled as a track-and-field athlete. Gourdine’s athleticism and focus took him to the 1952 Olympics, in Helsinki, Finland. He won the silver medal, missing the gold by a mere inch and a half. The closeness of the contest haunted him for years. “I would have rather lost by a foot,” Gourdine once said.

After receiving a B.S. in engineering physics in 1953, Gourdine served briefly as a naval officer before returning to science as a doctoral student, also in engineering physics, at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) on a Guggenheim fellowship. But before he earned his doctorate he began working as a scientist, serving on the technical staff of the Ramo-Woolridge Corporation, and then as a senior research scientist at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. After earning his doctorate in 1960, he became a lab director for Plasmodyne and then chief scientist for the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.

In 1964, Gourdine borrowed $200,000 from friends and used it to found Gourdine Systems, a research and development firm based in Livingston, New Jersey. In 1973, he founded another company, Energy Innovation, in Houston, Texas.

Gourdine's companies developed commercial applications for electrogasdynamics, garnering patents for converting natural gas to electricity, desalinating sea water, creating circuit breakers, and for acoustic imaging. He also invented the “focus flow heat sink,” which cools computer chips. But Gourdine is best known for developing the electrostatic precipitator filtration system, which removes smoke from burning buildings, fog from airport runways, and, today, allergens and other particulates from the air of many homes.

In his later years Gourdine suffered from diabetes, having a leg amputated and losing his sight, but he remained active as a scientist. While working on his last project--researching thermal energy for a new temperature-regulating technology--he suffered several strokes and died of complications in Houston on 20 November 1998. Gourdine was 69-years-old.

View the patents issued to Gourdine on the The Faces of Science and About: Inventors sites.

References

  • M. Bellis, Meredith Gourdine, available at About: Inventors, 2005

  • M. Brown, Meredith C. Gourdine: Physicist, Engineer, available at The Faces of Science: African Americans in the Sciences, 1995

  • S. Williams, Meredith Gourdine, available at Physicists of the African Diaspora, 1999

  • Alumni Deaths, available at Cornell Magazine On/Line, 1999

  • Meredith C. Gourdine (1929- ) Electrogasdynamics systems, available at Inventor of the Week Archive, 1998

  • Clinton Parks is a staff writer for MiSciNet.

    Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at cparks@aaas.org.