The laboratory white coat has become synonymous with our idea of what a doctor should look like. But when did the white coat become part of the standard work apparel worn by physicians? And why is it white?
As it turns out, usage of the white coat is a relatively recent phenomenon in medical history. Prior to the late 1800s, doctors typically wore black colored outfits, such as black frock coats, pants, and vests, because the color was associated with dignity and formality. Since physicians of the time had little genuine ability to heal the sick and injured, often their only purpose was to preside over a patient’s dying; thus, it was appropriate their clothes conveyed the same sense of solemnity and rituality as those of clergymen who attended to parishioners in such circumstances.
However, by the early 1900s, the germ theory of disease had become widely accepted by the scientific mainstream, and Joseph Lister’s pioneering work in developing aseptic surgical techniques had changed the practice of medicine forever. Once scientific methodology had proved proper hand washing and sterilization of instruments could prevent deaths due to infection and sepsis, an emphasis on cleanliness, purity, and a scientific mindset came to be adopted by medical professionals. The white lab coat was the ideal symbol to represent all these virtuous qualities, and, by 1915, it had become part of the work outfit of the modern physician, to help differentiate doctors who had undergone proper academic training from those who had undergone less formal apprenticeships, and even outright frauds and quacks.
Despite being associated with doctors ever since, the white coat hasn’t been universally adopted throughout the medical profession. For one thing, the coat can be intimidating to some patients, to such a degree that there’s a documented phenomenon known as “White Coat Syndrome,” in which a patient’s blood pressure will spike when in the presence of a doctor. Psychiatrists and pediatricians often eschew the white coat precisely because of the possible adverse reaction to it from their patient populations. However, other patients, especially older ones, like to see a physician wearing the white coat, as they view it as “the cloak of compassion.”
Today, the white coat isn’t just a symbol of medical professionalism and competence, but an emblem of compassion and honor. In 1993, the first White Coat Ceremony for medical students was held at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons; since then it has been performed annually at medical schools and other institutions across the United States, Canada, and other countries. During the ceremony, doctors-in-training swear an oath of professional conduct, such as the Hippocratic Oath or the Declaration of Geneva. In this way the white coat serves to remind all those who put it on to dedicate themselves to the highest standards of medical ethics, and to care for their patients with all the respect and dignity owed to a fellow human being.
Whether you’re looking to obtain your first white coat, or you’ve been wearing one for years, putting one on is an outward indication to your patients and colleagues that you have committed yourself to medicine’s loftiest ideals. If you’re looking for a new white coat to be part of your medical uniform, contact us today at 800-767-5536.