The fascinating story of when the white lab coat changed how we see doctors

Today, the white lab coat is a universally recognized scientific and medical uniform, especially present in medical settings. It’s such a ubiquitous and ingrained symbol, in fact, that when it comes to healthcare even seeing the white coat can bring feelings of well-being, health help, or (for those of us who dread the doctor) nervousness or fear.

When just about anyone thinks of a doctor, the think of a lab coat. And, in general, patients in a healthcare settings or in a physician’s office feel more confident and expect to be treated professionally by an individual that wears a white lab coat. Popular characters in film and television have further ingrained this classic image of today’s doctors.

Whether in science or in medicine, the white lab coat is deeply rooted in the process of studying and practicing professional sciences. For anyone in or considering medical school, for example, we’re certain you have imagined yourself wearing this attire and enjoying all the benefits that come with it, like wearing a representation of the role you play and inspiring confidence in those you serve.

The white lab coat also ceremoniously marks the transition from student years to residency in a physician’s career. In fact, since 1993, the “white coat ceremony” has taken hold as a standard medical school practice for recent grads. But just like the white coat hasn’t been around forever, this ceremony is a relatively new standard, first started by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation of Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. It caught on quickly, however, and has since been performed to mark the start of any medically related career.

Today, besides scientific expertise, white lab coats also symbolize cleanliness and preparedness because of the role they play in:

  • Preventing the spread of contaminations outside the examination room
  • Preventing the spread of contaminations outside the lab
  • And protecting the wearer from spills and other potential harm while in these settings

You know most of this stuff already. The lab coat has been part of your life as long as you can remember. But did you know that the lab coat wasn’t even established as a staple of the medical field until after the 19th century? In fact, shortly after British surgeon’s Joseph Lister antiseptic breakthrough is when the first manifestation of today’s lab coat was introduced. Before that, things were pretty different.

The era before white lab coats

Can you imagine a doctor dressed in black?

It’s probably a bizarre thought, not to mention a little morbid, but that’s the way it was before the 1900s. An early representation of doctors dressed in black comes from a painting by Thomas Eakins in 1875, named the Gross Clinic. The painting represents doctors performing an operation while dressed in black, formal attire. Formal black attire was preferred at that time to represent the serious nature of a doctor’s work.

doctors before the white lab coat

However, besides the obvious fact that the setting depicted is entirely different from what we’re used to today, it is kind of intimidating to think about seeing a doctor dressed this way.

The reality before the 1900s is that a visit to the doctor was rarely a good thing. The science of medicine was always improving, but mortality was still high, and medical procedures often involved enormous pain and could result in deadly infections.

In fact, for millennia, the understanding and cure of disease by civilizations around the world were generally based on outside influences like religious beliefs.

Pre-20th-century cures also often involved removing the offensive evil spirits or bad energy through the mouth, nose or skin by using primitive drugs or by removing blood (History News Network). Concepts like germs, bacteria and other contaminating factors were nowhere as sophisticated as they are today.

All of this meant that the image of doctors was not as uplifting or comforting as it is for most of us today. Doctors were usually associated with pain, fear of the evil that might be causing an ailment, and pending death.

When did the image of doctors change?

This perception and the overall image of doctors started to change about the same time that Thomas Eakins painting was created. In the early 1900s, a key medical breakthrough had emerged. British surgeon Joseph Lister has discovered that, by using carbolic acid, he could sterilize surgical instruments and prevent infections during and after surgery. Joseph Lister’s contribution to antisepsis fueled the transformation of medicine.

Besides the fact that the death rate from infections was then radically reduced, Lister’s contribution transformed the medical landscape at a time where doctors began to embrace empirical science instead of the outside influences.

Along with the shift to a new era of empirical study, a “rebranding” was necessary for doctors as old ways were left behind. Whereas doctors were still perceived as bringers of pain and the rest, scientists were suddenly perceived as the more trustworthy professionals. And, at that time, scientists were already dressed in white lab coats. Doctors, too, adopted the white lab coat to represent to the public that medicine had undergone a revolution, and that it was now in tune with the high standards that scientific professions demand.

The receptiveness of the public to the new empirical approach to medicine was so strong that, just few years later, the same artist Thomas Eakins also happened to paint and document The Agnew Clinic, a painting that represents doctors dressed in white coats close to what we are familiar with today.

first appearance of doctor in white lab coat

Just look at these two paintings, it’s very easy to appreciate that a doctor dressed in white looks much more professional, reassuring and approachable than a doctor dressed in black. This observation has been echoed by multiple studies. In fact, it has been shown that white lab coats contribute to the positive psychology of patients, and ultimately to their successful treatment.

It turns out that scientific advancements played a major role in transforming the look of medical attire into what we think of today. Lab coats were adopted by doctors exactly when they had to be to keep medicine serving the population when public opinions started to shift.

From the 1900s to today, the white lab coat has represented scientific expertise and rigor, and it is a status symbol for anyone participating in the medical field. So, feel comfortable as a patient and proud as a practitioner every time you see a white lab coat.