“Why do I love ice? Why do I prefer—nay, need—my drink to be cold?” These were the questions that ran through my head in early 2019 as I filled a cup with iced tea at a gas station in Apalachicola, Florida, a tiny town on the Gulf Coast. The day was sweltering, and the thick scent of palm trees wafted through the air, mixing with the smell of melting asphalt. At the time, I was deep into writing my book Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks—a Cool History of a Hot Commodity, about all the unexpected ways ice has shaped America’s history and culture. I’d come here to learn more about the man who made the nation’s first ice machine.
That man was John Gorrie, a 19th-century, New York-born doctor who moved to Apalachicola in the 1840s to treat yellow fever, which plagued the region every summer. Without knowing that mosquitoes transmit the virus (no one knew that yet back then), Gorrie thought that ice might be a cure. After much trial and error, he succeeded at building a working ice machine, the nation’s first, but his invention didn’t receive the response he’d hoped for. This was an era of superstition and skepticism toward science. A man who claimed he could make ice? Why, only God can make ice! Or so went the thinking of the day.
Gorrie was ridiculed by his peers and eventually died a penniless laughingstock in his early 50s of the very disease he was hoping to treat. A mere decade later, his rediscovered ice machine patent would serve as the blueprint to build America’s first commercial ice plants. From then on, ice became not only a luxury but a necessity across the country.
I wanted to learn more about Gorrie, but despite his extraordinary contributions to science, hardly anyone then—or now—knew who he was. Few of his personal papers were saved after his death, and many more were lost in a fire. Writing Gorrie’s story—and the ways it intersected with the larger history of ice—was going to be a challenge, but the historian in me couldn’t have been more excited to take it on.
My trip to Apalachicola brought me first to the John Gorrie Memorial Museum, where I spoke with a staff member named Peggy. I thought I’d begin by asking her about what historians already know, but even the basics, I learned, are up for debate. Gorrie’s birth records were lost to history, she said, so no one knows for sure whether he was born in Charleston, South Carolina, or on Nevis, a small island in the Caribbean Sea. Almost everyone agrees on when Gorrie moved to Apalachicola (the 1840s) and why (to treat yellow fever), but no one knows for sure how a doctor of such little means (he was broke when he arrived and even more broke when he died) treated so many patients.
“Why do I love ice? Why do I prefer—nay, need—my drink to be cold?”
We know that he married the daughter of a wealthy hotelier not long after he arrived in Florida, but no one knows for certain why. I wanted to think it was for love, of course, but it was hard not to wonder how a woman of her social stature got away with marrying a poor, blasphemous doctor of ill repute at a time when women were rarely allowed to make significant decisions without input from their families. When I looked at their relationship from Gorrie’s perspective, I thought that perhaps Gorrie saw his wife’s family as a source of wealth to fund his ice-making experiments, but circumstantial evidence suggests that the couple barely had enough to live on.
Then there was the biggest question at the heart of my research: Why did Gorrie think that ice would cure disease? What possibly could have led him to that conclusion?
With so many holes in the doctor’s story, I realized that archival research—my favorite kind!—would be most useful. Back in my hotel, I revisited what I knew. I had Gorrie’s basic timeline and at least a few names and locations. I pulled out my laptop and searched newspaper databases to find articles related to 1840s Apalachicola. An hour later, I stumbled across a notice of Gorrie’s marriage in the Apalachicola Gazette. Interestingly, the bride’s father didn’t attend the ceremony. (So the union had caused a familial stir!) Next I turned to a database of 19th-century medical journals, where I learned about the leading theories of the day surrounding the dangers of heat. As a doctor, Gorrie would have read those journals and learned that too high of a fever could damage a patient’s internal organs. That’s probably at least one reason why he sought to create ice: to cool his feverish patients.
“That’s the power of archives, I thought. They hold our stories, even if in pieces, until someone puts them back together.”
Finally, I turned to digitized records housed at the Library of Congress, where I discovered a series of articles that Gorrie wrote under a pen name about the use of ice to cure yellow fever. His argument aligned with the one in the medical journals, further confirming my suspicion that he believed ice cured yellow fever by lowering patients’ body temperatures. I also found a letter he wrote to a fellow doctor about his ice machine. The letter’s uncertain tone painted a portrait of a man in the throes of self-doubt and frustration and would serve as the emotional centerpiece for my chapter on Gorrie. At long last, the ice doctor’s story was revealing itself more fully.
On my last day in Apalachicola, I stood across the street from the museum where Gorrie was buried and thought about how his story was spread across time and space like a thousand puzzle pieces. That’s the power of archives, I thought. They hold our stories, even if in pieces, until someone puts them back together.
Headshot of Amy Brady by Cate Barry Photography.