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Mark Powell’s Palmetto Past & Present: South Carolina’s ‘Chill Doc’

“Shut the freezer door!”

If springtime is lovelier anywhere on God’s green earth than in the South, I have yet to see it. Spring arrives early and lingers long here. The cool days of late have been icing on the cake.

These days are doubly appreciated because all too soon (in just a few weeks, in fact), the mercury will shoot through the roof and we will commence the long hot slog through summer.

Braving the formerly unbearable brutality of those proverbial “dog days” has become possible thanks in large part to one modern convenience. It’s probably in your home right now. And believe it or not, we all owe a debt of gratitude to a former resident of the Palmetto State for inventing it.

Dr. John Gorrie wasn’t born in South Carolina. He didn’t make his landmark discovery here, either. But the Palmetto State played a big role in his life – and there’s a solid case for claiming him as an “honorary son.”

Gorrie knew all about living in a hot climate. His story began on the island of Nevis in the West Indies, where he was born in the early 1800s. His family sent him to South Carolina as a child, and Gorrie grew up in Columbia. If you think our “famously hot” and humid summers are miserable now – just imagine what they were like 200 years ago before electricity powered the miracles of air conditioning and ceiling fans.

It was no environment for the faint of heart, that’s for sure.



Off to college in New York State, Gorrie earned his medical degree in 1827 and soon returned to South Carolina. He hung out his first shingle in Abbeville, S.C. but greener pastures – with even hotter weather – soon came calling and the good doctor settled in bustling Apalachicola, Florida, in 1833. At the time, this was an important cotton port with a promising future. There he met, courted and married Caroline Frances Myrick Beman, a Columbia-born widow who was the proprietress of the Florida Hotel in Apalachicola.

At this point in his life, fate intervened. Gorrie found himself treating people who were sick with yellow fever. Their illnesses intrigued him. Common in coastal areas, he undertook an examination of the cause. Without the benefit of modern microbiology to guide him, Gorrie sensed mosquitos were somehow responsible for its transmission. He urged the draining of swamps and placement of netting around beds for nighttime protection.

The doctor took things a step further by utilizing cool rooms to treat sufferers. In the pre-AC era, coolness meant one thing: Ice. Business flourished as people in the North sawed blocks of frozen lake ice in winter, packed them in sawdust and sent them by ship to the ice-starved South. Not surprisingly, ice was a very expensive luxury enjoyed only by the very rich.

Gorrie began looking into the science of temperature control. He hung basins of ice from the ceiling in sickrooms and discovered something: Because cold air is heavy, it pushes down the lighter hot air and flows through the entire room.

A lightbulb went off in the doctor’s head (figuratively speaking, of course, because the lightbulb itself was still a good 40 years off). Since ice was so grossly expensive, why not make artificial ice instead? 

He began tinkering in his office. When Gorrie was finished, he came up with something remarkable.

(Click to view)

Dr. John Gorrie (Florida State Library)

“If the air were highly compressed, it would heat up by the energy of compression,” he wrote in a guest column for Apalachicola’s Commercial Advertiser. “If this compressed air were run through metal pipes cooled with water, and if this air cooled to the water temperature was expanded down to atmospheric pressure again, very low temperatures could be obtained, even low enough to freeze water in pans in a refrigerator box.” 

The U.S. Patent Office agreed, and on May 6, 1851, it awarded Gorrie Patent No. 8080 for a machine that made ice. (Though a patent had been issued in Europe 16 years earlier for another ice-making device, its method was different.)

Gorrie was excited by icemaking’s possibilities. He gave up practicing medicine, found a business partner, and went into business.  

Then everything went to hell in a handbasket …        

First, Gorrie’s partner died – taking the venture capital with him. Next, he was unable to secure new funding due to “either problems in product demand and operation, or the opposition of the ice lobby,” according to a local historian. Then the naysayers kicked in – doubters who are all too eager to point out why something new will never work. Skepticism turned into snickering – and soon people were laughing at both the doctor and his contraption.

Flat broke, utterly humiliated and his health collapsing – Gorrie died in 1855. He never got the satisfaction of knowing science eventually vindicated his revolutionary ideas. He never had the pleasure of seeing Florida erect his statue in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. And he never knew the gratification of knowing the ice-makers manufactured today still utilize the fundamental principles he discovered.

But we can still honor him. In fact, the next time you hoist an icy beverage on a blazingly hot day, pause and remember the erstwhile South Carolinian who made it possible.            

Oh, one final mystery remains: Historians have yet to identify the first mother to shout across a kitchen, “Shut the freezer door; you’re letting all the cold out!” But it’s a safe bet her descendants are still saying it today. 



Mark Powell (Provided)

J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at [email protected].



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