This story was originally published in our Sept/Oct 2023 issue as “Cold Comfort” Click here to subscribe to read more stories like this one.
One year before the U.S. Civil War ended, an embargo had brought the southern ice trade to a halt, causing the region’s chefs, bartenders, nurses and doctors to lose access to the northern ice they’d come to rely on for preserving food, making drinks and healing bodies. Without ice, the South was suffering.
What they didn’t know was that 20 years before the war began, a relatively unknown doctor living in the port town of Apalachicola, Florida, had found a way to bring ice to the South that didn’t depend on shipments from the North. Against all conventional scientific thinking of the day, the doctor, John Gorrie, had discovered how to make ice himself. His ice-making machine would eventually change how Americans use and think of ice. It made ice possible during ice famines — winters that weren’t cold enough to effectively freeze lakes and rivers — and even in hot summers. A direct line can be drawn between Gorrie’s mechanical ice and air-conditioning, modern refrigeration and state-of-the art medical treatments such as therapeutic hypothermia and cryosurgery, which uses ice crystals to freeze tumors.
None of that mattered to Gorrie though, who died a laughingstock at the relatively young age of 51.
A series of 19th-century newspaper illustrations, entitled “The Great Yellow Fever Scourge — Incidents Of Its Horrors In The Most Fatal District Of The Southern States,” depicts sad scenes including this one in Memphis, Tennessee. (Credit: Bettmann via Getty Images)
Gorrie’s childhood and teen years aren’t well documented, but records show that when he turned 20, he took an apprentice position at an apothecary in Charleston, South Carolina, run by Samuel Green, one of just a handful of doctors in the city and by far the most well-known by locals.
Throughout most of the year, their patients suffered from ordinary illnesses like colds and minor aches and pains. Then came “fever season,” a stretch of four or five months when yellow fever returned to the South. Called “yellow fever” because jaundice is a common symptom, the mosquito-borne virus causes high fever, convulsions, headaches and leg pain. Yellow fever kills up to 50 percent of those with severe infections, and between 1790 and 1860 it killed more than 200 citizens every year in Charleston alone.
For nearly 10 years, Gorrie worked with Green to administer experimental treatments to ease patients’ symptoms. After one especially deadly summer, Green convinced Gorrie to apply to medical school. When Gorrie graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Western District of New York three years later, he chose to go to where some of the worst yellow fever outbreaks occurred in North America: the Florida Territory.
In February 1833, at the age of 29, Gorrie left for the tiny Gulf Coast town of Apalachicola. When he arrived, the weather was still relatively cool and Gorrie spent his days smoking a pipe and reading medical textbooks. Then spring turned to summer, bringing a deadly wave of yellow fever that wiped out 69 percent of those who caught it in coastal Florida.
The sick arrived at Gorrie’s door jaundiced and dehydrated and shivering with fever. He soon had so many patients that he converted the entire second floor of his home into a sick ward. Gorrie treated them with concoctions mixed just as Green had taught him. When those failed, he applied leeches taken from nearby swamps to his patients’ aching joints with the hope that their bloodsucking would do the sickly good. Few people got better. By August, the beds on the second floor were full, and he found himself turning people away.
Eventually, Gorrie began to reconsider. Yellow fever came with the heat and passed with it, too. Why not apply the same principle to a patient? That is, why not try to lower their body temperature?
Alongside the patent application, Gorrie submitted a wooden model of his ice-making machine. This model comprised a compression cylinder, an expanding cylinder and a crankshaft. (Credit: U.S. Patent No. 8,080/Public Domain)
During the summer of 1841, as the illness swept through town, Gorrie put his ice theory into practice. He found that rubbing ice directly on a patient risked injuring their skin — but wrapping it in cloth would leave the patient damp and prone to additional illness, or so went the thinking of the day. He turned his attention to the room around him. If he couldn’t lower his patients’ temperatures directly, perhaps he could reduce the heat of the surrounding air?
Drawing on his college courses in thermodynamics, wherein he learned that cool air fell and hot air rose, he sketched a contraption that he hoped would get physics to work in his favor. He drilled a hole into a clean metal bedpan and filled it with ice, then hung the pan from the ceiling. He opened a window to encourage a breeze, and as the air flowed over the ice and through the hole, it cooled before swirling downward. Within minutes, the room began to feel cooler. Gorrie had created one of the world’s first air conditioners.
The cool air seemed to ease his patients’ suffering, even if they didn’t immediately — or ever — get well. This glimmer of hope was enough to convince Gorrie to keep suspended bedpans full of ice over each of his patients’ beds. But as the epidemic raged on, he went through his small ice reserve quickly; even if he had all the money in the world, he still wouldn’t be able to buy enough ice to keep every patient cool.
Ice was dubbed “white gold” by locals because only the wealthiest Floridians could afford it — and Apalachicola was not a prosperous town. When shipments arrived from the North in winter, ice cost as much as $5 per pound (nearly $30 today), and in summer, it was nonexistent. If Gorrie wanted more ice, he would have to make it himself.
The next three years of Gorrie’s life were marked by obsession. He worked long days, dividing his time between caring for patients and experimenting with ice-making. While experimenting with air pressure to drain a bucket, he discovered that the quick compression and expansion of air had a cooling effect. When he applied the compressor to water, it formed a hair-thin sheet of ice crystals across the top. The doctor had finally done it. He’d created ice.
This first ice-making prototype had to be cranked by hand and its output was slow, but it was capable of creating a lot of ice. Gorrie had ideas for increasing the machine’s speed — his patents reveal he considered adding a water pump, a steam engine, even a horse to power his machine — but such improvements would cost money that he didn’t have.
In the spring of 1844, Gorrie began writing a series of articles in Apalachicola’s newspaper, The Commercial Advertiser, entitled “On the Prevention of Malarial Diseases.” These were his first public admissions that he’d begun experimenting with ice making, an explosive claim in religious, small-town Florida. At the time, ice was considered to be God’s creation — not the province of humans. Worried for his reputation, he adopted “Jenner” as a nom de plume in tribute to Edward Jenner, the discoverer of the smallpox vaccine.
When the first article ran on April 6, 1844, public reaction ranged from indifference to disgust. The editors of Scientific American published a letter reading, “We do not know of any feasible plan for producing ice artificially.” Such derision made its way around the world, where the Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce called the invention a “cock-and-bull story.” Hiding behind his fake name, Gorrie continued to write, publishing 11 articles in all.
In his final one, dated June 15, 1844, he tried to convince the public of the benefits of ice-making by outlining its economic impacts. If he could build ice machines at the commercial scale, he argued, he could create permanent jobs throughout the South. But the article did little to convince the pious, and the next five years remain a hole in Gorrie’s story.
We know that he finally secured a U.S. patent for his ice machine in 1851 and that two inventors from Europe — possibly having read the slanderous articles — visited his office that same year to see the machine in action. There’s also evidence he visited cities in Florida, South Carolina and New York to search for investors, though where he got the money for travel remains uncertain. He finally found an investor in Boston, but the man died before an arrangement was finalized. At his lowest point, he was reduced to walking the streets of New York City, hawking pamphlets about his idea and asking to speak with anyone who’d listen.
By 1855, just four years after receiving his patent, Gorrie was bereft of money, friends and finally his health. He probably caught malaria — a disease that, like yellow fever, he believed he could cure with ice. When his fever spiked to 104 degrees, he went to bed, where he died 24 hours later, with a shattered reputation and debts mounting to more than $6,000 (about $200,000 today).
Gorrie knew he was ahead of his time. Toward the end of his life, he wrote that his ice machine had “been found in advance of the wants of the country.” A decade after his death, however, the nation’s wants finally caught up with his vision.
At the start of the Civil War, inventors from France and England simultaneously announced their “discoveries” of the process of manufacturing ice, though their systems were curiously similar to Gorrie’s. The Europeans improved on the doctor’s design by replacing air with ether and ammonia, and sold the designs to manufacturers in the U.S. in the 1860s, setting in motion America’s human-made ice age.
The South, in particular, embraced ice machines. The war had ended slavery, thus upending the plantation economy. The region was now competing with northern industry, and ice manufacturing offered a timely leg up. By 1875, ice-manufacturing plants had opened in Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. By 1920, the U.S. boasted more than 4,800 block-ice plants employing 160,000 people and producing 40 million tons of ice per year.
Nearly every hospital in the South built a commercial-sized icehouse on its grounds. Had Gorrie lived, he would have seen one of his biggest dreams come true: Hospitals could now treat every patient suffering from surgical wounds, broken bones or fever with ice.
A medical journal reprinted Gorrie’s “On the Prevention of Malarial Diseases” series, this time with his real name, generating interest in his bedpan “cooling machine.” The machine’s popularity peaked in 1881, when President James Garfield lay dying at the White House from a gunshot wound. His nurses used the apparatus to cool the room and keep the president comfortable.
The cost of ice continued to fall, giving rise to new industries. American merchants shipped ice-packed apples and strawberries to nations around the world. Merchants from those countries shipped citrus to the States in return. Mechanical ice also established the American seafood trade. Fish had been a colonial delicacy on the Gulf Coast for a century — and a staple of Indigenous coastal diets for much longer — but because fish had to be kept cold, it wasn’t eaten more than a few miles inland. The affordability of manufactured ice enabled fishers to pack cargo hulls with ice, which kept their catch fresh at sea. Back on shore, they packed their still-fresh catch into insulated train cars and shipped it to the Midwest, sparking new appetites.
Today, Gorrie’s remains rest beneath a tree across the street from the John Gorrie Museum in Apalachicola, a one-room building more Florida roadside attraction than proper museum. His tombstone is small and easy to overlook, and his story remains mostly untold.
A statue of Gorrie stands in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection, a gift from his namesake museum, and public records of his work are spread across several hard-to-find archives. A flip through a contemporary HVAC textbook shows that Gorrie’s discoveries are usually credited to innovators who based their work on his idea, but rarely to Gorrie himself.
There is at least one institution — beyond the museum — that credits Gorrie’s achievements: The National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., which houses the doctor’s first working ice-making machine prototype and his original patents. At the time of writing, they remain in storage, out of public view.
Excerpted from Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks — a Cool History of a Hot Commodity by Amy Brady, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Amy Brady.