Thursday, July 12, 2007

Women and Men in White

Another interesting medical note from my friend, Punna

The doctor's white coat—an historical perspective

The white coat has served as the pre-eminent symbol of physicians for over 100 years. Prior to the late 19th century doctors wore not white but black garb.

How did the white coat come to represent physicians in the first place?

The word candor is derived from the Latin candidus which means white. In fact, the foundation of all professional societies is candor or truth.
Physicians dressed themselves in black until the late 19th century. Black attire is considered formal (e.g., today's tuxedo). Consequently until about 1900, physicians wore black for their patient interactions since medical encounters are serious and formal matters.

A scene from Jefferson Medical College's amphitheater in Philadelphia showing Dr. Samuel Gross and his assistants— all dressed in black formal attire—performing a leg operation on a young man.
It was Joseph Lister's contribution that truly moved medicine from home remedies and quackery to the realm of bioscience. For the first time, reproducible results helped researchers better understand how to prevent bacterial contamination.

This progression was documented in Eakins' 1889 "The Agnew Clinic" D. Hayes Agnew MD, can be seen in a white smock, with assistants also wearing white, suggesting that a new sense of cleanliness pervaded the environment.

At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, when medicine became scientific, the "whiteness" or "pureness" of medicine became reflected in the garb of physicians and nurses . Up until that time nuns in their black habits functioned as nurses, largely in almshouses. To this day nurses in England are called sisters, because of their religious origins.

In the 20th century, the white coat continued as the symbol of medical authority and respect. Probably the greatest development of medical science in the 20th century was the advent of antibiotics toward the end of World War II—the completion of Lord Lister's dream that bacteria could be successfully overcome. For the first time pneumonia, appendicitis, an infected blister or a toothache no longer condemned one to death.

A depiction of a physician in a white coat is indeed the symbol of medicine, eclipsing even the stethoscope.

Many patients view the white coat as a "cloak of compassion" and a symbol of the caring and hope they expect to receive from their physicians . Medical students see their education and role as future physicians as aspiring to be worthy of the white coat. The white coat symbolizes the standard of professionalism, caring and emblem of the trust they must earn from patients. It gives them a standard against which they must measure their every act of care to the patients who trust them.


  1. this post made me think of my white robe, rope and stole!

  2. carer of the body,
    carer of the soul

  3. Sivin,
    Looks like we Methodist haven't evolved and still in black! haha

  4. How then do you take the recent suggestion for doctors to give up neckties - I remember reading a test which was done somehwhere that doctor neckties are less washed and clean and therefore susceptible to infecting others. The Malaysian govt apparently pooh-poohed it.

  5. pearlie,

    I haven't worn a necktie to work for the last 15 years.

    Surprisingly, I wear a necktie when I preach. I wonder why.

  6. oddly, medical students in melb no longer wear white coat - an intern told me that it is because white coats are only for the consultants.

    Gee, what does that imply?

  7. hi sora,

    the symbol of medical authority and respect ? Ahem