The Ice Doctor


Is it hot enough for you? Riding around the island you can’t miss the constant monotone drone of hundreds of air conditioners. As the temperature climbs to triple digits and islanders hide inside next to their cold air vents, it might be interesting to tell the story of this amazing technology that changed the world.

It’s an unlikely tale of an ambitious New York doctor, a terrible disease, a 19th century Florida boom town and the physics of hot and cold.

The scene is Apalachicola in 1833, a steamy river port on Florida’s panhandle gulf coast. The huge river that gave the city its name drains a considerable portion of rich West Florida, Alabama and Georgia farm lands. Before railroads developed, this river road provided the only outlet for the ‘white gold’ cotton crop on its way to hungry New England and European mills. The trade that resulted allowed the town to compete with New Orleans and Galveston and the money came in on every tide. Wealth means luxury and soon the little boom town could show off ornate hotels, churches, mansions and paved streets with lights that rivaled bigger cities.

Dr. John Gorrie came there from New York because he was fascinated by the summer seasonal plague of Yellow Fever that preyed on the residents of tropical areas. He chose the city because it represented both the opportunity to study the disease and the money to support his practice. At the time the prevailing belief was that that hot, humid, ‘swamp vapor’ or ‘bad air’ caused the illness. The effect was devastating and few victims were spared the high fever, horrible headaches, debilitating nausea and black vomiting. In the worse cases there was jaundice caused by liver damage and finally, a painful death.

The fever was an equal opportunity affliction, affecting rich and poor, free workers as well as slaves. It was disastrous to the work force and crippled the economy. Dr. Gorrie was determined to treat the symptoms and find a cure. He felt that if he could reduce the ‘bad air’ temperature of his patient’s room, he could begin to treat the fever. At the time the only way to do this was suspend a basin filled with ice from the ceiling. The ice cooled the air which, being heavier than warm air, flowed down around the bed into a hole in the floor and thus cooled the patient. You can imagine the positive effect on a feverish patient 64 years before aspirin was invented. Dr. Gorrie quickly became a very popular and wealthy physician.

At this point I’ll bet you’re wondering just how do you obtain ice during a Florida summer in 1833? Amazingly, there was an industry that harvested ice from New England lakes in the form of sawn blocks, stored them and shipped them south by sailing ship insulated with sawdust. If you could get some of the blocks to the tropics before they melted they would be literally worth their weight in gold. In fact, the high cost and limited availability of imported ice encouraged Dr. Gorrie to experiment with a machine to produce cooling air.

I won’t bore you with the mechanics of refrigeration but it’s based on the principal of transferring heat by means of a gas.  His system compressed air, then partly cooled the hot compressed air with water before allowing it to expand while doing part of the work needed to drive the air compressor. The result is cool air or, technically, the absence of heat. Dr. Gorrie’s steam powered cold air machine, an idea as fantastic as turning lead into gold at the time, actually worked. In fact, it worked so well that one night the machine froze up and produced the world’s first artificial ice.

Dr Gorrie realized the potential of his invention, quit the practice of medicine in 1845 and filed for a patent. He spent the next 10 years trying to raise money to manufacture the machine but sadly died in poverty, never having achieved his dream. It seems no one wanted to invest in such a crazy idea as a machine that made ice. It would be another 50 years before the idea was ‘discovered’ again and developed. Of course, his invention was the basis for all of our air conditioners, refrigerators, deep freezes, wine cabinets, beer chests and margarita machines today. It’s hard to imagine summer life on our little slice of paradise without this technology we usually take for granted unless, of course, it breaks down and you have to move into your neighbor’s house.

Dr. Gorrie is remembered by a memorial and small state run museum in Apalachicola which has a model of his machine. A marble statue of him is in the National Statuary Hall in the US Capitol. The city today is a living museum with ruins of once vast waterfront cotton warehouses, elaborate churches and aging antebellum mansions. It faces a pristine bay which is world famous for great tasting oysters and exceptional fishing. The barrier islands across the bay are renowned for their undeveloped white sand beaches.

In 1900, Dr. Walter Reed was generally credited with discovering that Yellow Fever was caused by a virus transmitted primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Preventative measures developed by Dr. William Gorgas against the disease made construction of the Panama Canal possible. A vaccine has been available since the 1950s and has gone a long way to eradicate this curse of mankind. Ironically, most vaccines, including the one for Yellow Fever, are refrigerated to preserve them, thus saving millions of lives. Dr. Gorrie would have been pleased.