By Josephine Reid
The white lab coat first made its appearance in the late 1800s, along with the development of medical scrubs. Before this time, lab coats were traditionally beige and worn in laboratories Doctors, like clergy, dressed in black to reflect the sombre nature of their work (can you say fun fact)!
The end of the 19th century was a time of tremendous progress in public health and medicine, when the benefits of sanitation and clean water were recognized. In the hospital setting, antiseptics took hospital care to new levels. Prior to the germ-fighting era, physicians and scientists were largely indistinguishable from other quacks. A medical-school degree could be obtained in a year, and there were few standards of good practice. With the approach of germ theory, physicians strove to be more scientific in their practice and their dress. Medical schools also adopted a more rigorous and standardized curriculum.
The white coat possessed this new philosophy. White is widely known as the color of hope, and the lab coat the symbol of the healer. Surgeons became the first to wear the white coat, followed by hospital doctors and then in-office general practitioners. By 1915, it had become the norm, though doctors doing home visits still dressed formally.
To this day, most medical schools have a "White Coat Ceremony," where new students are solemnly presented with a short white coat at the beginning of their studies. When they graduate, they get a long white lab coat. In a hospital coat, length is a handy way to identify the students.
As time goes on and progresses however, white laboratory coats, traditionally thought of as a sign of authority and competence, are a necessary part of the lives of some scientists - but not all. There are many scientists that do not have the call to wear a lab coat for their work, or to enable them to do their work.