The appropriation of the lab coat: A short history

Lab coats. That thing you wear when you’re trying to look sciency because there are cameras around or the lab is a bit nippy. However, when you line up for your first of many coffees of the day, the casual observer may see something different. Possibly as a result of all the chemical stains, or maybe because of the splatters of blood, it will probably be assumed you’ve been dumpster diving in the hospital trash and stolen an MDs coat.

But why is this so? Why did the lab coat go from the symbol of scientific endeavors to a symbol of medical authority?

The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins, 1875 (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Originally, physicians wore dark robes which were probably adopted from monastic attire to help reinforce what was then considered a solemn duty. This later changed to smart attire, as famously depicted by the painting ‘The Gross Clinic’ by Thomas Eakins in 1875. Here, Dr Gross, hands covered in blood, is lecturing to a group of students while surgeons garbed in jackets, waistcoats, bow ties, and sporting some rather spiffy mustaches, crowd around a patient and carry out surgery for osteomyelitis. At the time, this depiction was considered shocking and brutal, not helped by the chaotic tangle of surgeons around the operating table and the obviously distraught relative not 6 feet away from the slab. It was around this time that the current medical status quo was becoming unacceptable. Archaic procedures such as blood-letting and urine therapy (literally bathing in urine) were still common practice and the public was beginning to realize that these methods may be less than reliable.

In contrast, in the 1800’s, people thought scientists were all that – with their snazzy whites and evidence based methods of enquiry. New and exciting discoveries were being made in rapid succession, with breakthroughs such as the isolation of the first enzyme, the discrediting of the theory of vitalism and the establishment of the first law of thermodynamics all occurring within the first part of the decade. As such, it was relative boon period for research science.

The Agnew Clinic by Thomas Eakins, 1889 (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The low level of trust for the medical profession, coupled with the advent of germ theory meant that it was time for a change and a rebranding of sorts. And thus, the white coat was adopted as a symbol of cleanliness and to reflect their new scientific approach to medicine. This is commonly illustrated the ‘The Agnew Clinic’ also by Thomas Eakins completed in 1889. This depicts another operation, this time in a serene setting, with bright lighting, sterile white sheets and a complete lack of blood spatter. What’s more, the doctors have adopted white coats. Since then the lab coat has increasingly a symbol of the medical profession, with patients seeing it as a mark of authority, trust and status symbol.

So there you have it. Next time you’re let out of the lab and you’re standing in a line waiting for your coffee beside a perfectly manicured MD, complete with a pristine, freshly pressed and blindingly white lab coat, you can be safe in the knowledge that your profession had been wearing lab coats since before they were cool.

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