We’ve been talking about influencers: pharmacists, med students and nurses who have gained niche fame as YouTube and Instagram superstars. In fact, when talking about these influencers, we’ve focused almost exclusively on YouTubers who promote white lab coat culture through their content online.
But there’s some other video content we’d like to talk about today. How about our favorite white lab coat wearers in TV and film?
Influencers aren’t just those who post to YouTube. Anyone who has an impact on the way we perceive something is exercising influence, and who better to do that than some of our favorite fictitious characters? Indeed, many characters donning a lab coat have helped to make sure everybody knows just how much of a superpower the white lab coat can really be.
Scientists change the world—in the most literal sense as well as socially. Innovations in medical research facilities, chemical laboratories and everywhere in between, completely alter what we might think of as possible (and then later, what IS possible).
That said, while heroes in lab coats do change the world day in and day out, the general public is often none the wiser. To some extent, therefore, popular culture is the primary medium where the average person outside the laboratory or the clinic can take a peek into this culture of academia and rigor. Most of us aren’t flipping through research papers, but we are certainly watching movies and TV shows.
Lab coats in pop culture
Just like in the real world, a lab coat on a fictional character normally implies some degree of authority and command over a subject. And out of that same respect it earns the wearer, some of the most beloved characters in popular culture were born.
Perhaps even because of how many of us have complained about a science or math-based school topic (and all the relate homework), overall we feel a natural sense of admiration to those who know how to study it well. And we love hearing someone explain why something works, even if it’s an entirely made-up description with invented words and nonsense.
Here are some of the iconic and beloved characters who have shown the world that a scientist in a lab coat knows no limits:
Dr. Emmett Brown
Referred to simply as “Doc,” Dr. Emmett Brown is the quintessential “scientist in a lab coat” who helped shaped a generation’s passion for discovery. In the Back to the Future films, Doc Brown calls himself a “student of all sciences” and leads the main protagonist Marty McFly through complex adventures through time, testing Marty’s (and the audience’s) comprehension of what is scientifically possible.
Doc Brown champions the spirit of endless possibilities via a quick wit and a sharp intellect. Although “anything is possible with science” is a claim that is easy to fabricate through the power of CGI and storytelling, Doc’s message of pushing boundaries and innovating beyond what seems possible transcends the silver screen.
Not only have countless fans found inspiration in Doc’s admittedly whacky but ferocious intelligence, but real-world innovations have followed the film’s ideas. In an attempt to depict a world far into the future, the second film in particular introduced highly advanced, fictional technology woven seamlessly into everyday life, the two most prominent examples being self-lacing shoes and hover boards.
Not to be outdone by fictional characters, real-world scientists in their own lab coats followed the ideas and developed this futuristic technology. In the spirit of the films, Nike released a functioning self-lacing replica of the shoes depicted in the film, and now shoe companies seem to be releasing self-lacing models left and right. The hover board too, which seemed to be an unreachable feat, was developed and even ridden by skateboarding legend Tony Hawk.
James Bond is, without a doubt, one of the coolest characters in movie history—likely more than a few of us have walked up to the bartender with a little too much confidence and requested a martini “shaken, not stirred.” Between the precise marksmanship, the elite athleticism, and all the absurdly dexterous fight scenes, fans’ love for Bond is matched only by their love for his superspy gadgets.
Q, often depicted in a lab coat, is the engineering mastermind behind all the iconic Bond spy tech. And just like Doc Brown, Q is no stranger to inspiring real-world technology. In 1964, Goldfinger depicted Bond aided in his mission by advanced satnav technology. The CIA and entrepreneurs alike felt this technology should be reality, and eventually developed the ubiquitous GPS services we have today.
Perhaps the most iconic of Q’s inventions—and the most iconic part of the Bond films in general—are the cars. From amphibious to flying, bullet proof to bullet firing, and always stylish, Bond’s cars have always been as versatile and clever as he is himself.
Naturally, real-world car manufactures have tried and, in many cases, succeeded in mirroring some of Q’s car tech. In Tomorrow Never Dies, Bond piloted his car from a remote control. While we don’t typically drive via remote control today, more and more cars move in and out of parking spaces by themselves, and some even drive themselves. Built-in navigation is another one of Q’s inventions that not only exists today but has even become an industry standard.
While fictional characters have a different way about changing the world, the inspiration that they give us has absolutely revolutionized entire industries. And seeing these larger-than-life ideas go from the big screen into our everyday lives serves as social proof that scientists in white lab coats do indeed change the world, one idea at a time.
Coats for kids
Perhaps even more important than inspiring the general public is ensuring that the culture will be alive and well into the future.
In other words, it’s important that lab coat culture be shared in channels consumed by kids. Fortunately, scientifically confident and brilliant characters have been popular in kid-friendly media for quite some time.
One of Cartoon Network’s most popular and successful shows, Dexter’s Laboratory, tells the story of Dexter the boy-genius. Rarely depicted as wearing anything other than a white lab coat, Dexter’s most prominent character trait is his striking intellect. From the very beginning, Dexter is depicted as incredibly smart, so much so that he has his own hidden laboratory where he works in secret.
The show is fun and cleverly composed with engaging, kid-friendly humor. And the fact that the main character is so openly championed for being devote to science sends a strong message to the kids watching: science and smarts are cool.
Comic book heroes and scientist characters intersect on many, many occasions. One of these heroes, often depicted in a white lab coat when he’s not fighting crime, is your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man—a.k.a. Peter Parker.
The Spider-Man comics have been around since 1963, the character himself since 1962. And since the beginning, Peter Parker has been depicted as intellectually gifted. In fact, originally endowed only with super strength, agility, and spidey-senses (no natural web slinging ability), Parker would design and develop his own web-slinging and crime fighting technology to boost his newfound powers.
The driving force behind this web-slinger’s introduction to comic readers was to celebrate a hero that wasn’t larger than life; Superman is an alien, Iron Man is a billionaire philanthropist, Captain America is a genetically engineered super soldier. Spider-Man, on the other hand, is just a kid.
Granted, “just a kid” doesn’t usually include superpowers gained through a radioactive spider bite, but at his core, Peter Parker is really a kid trying to figure out how to handle his life on his own—no government project, no intergalactic war, and no instructions. This “just a kid” approach was intended to form Spider-Man as a hero that anybody could project themselves onto. Anyone could be under that mask, Peter was just the one that happened to get bit.
And while we’re on the topic of superpowers, Peter’s intellect plays no small role in his heroism. When he isn’t saving the world wearing his spidey-suit, he’s working on how to be a better hero while wearing his white lab coat. The same “just a kid” approach extends to show that anybody can innovate with a hunger for learning and discovery. In the end, kids who read the Spider-Man comics or watch the movies look up to a hero who saves the world (or the neighborhood) from rooftops as well as from the laboratory.
It’s no secret that the lab coats made for both men and women are really just smaller men’s cuts.
Women entering science today, and the generations before them, continue the search for lab coats to buy that fit them well. Even today the ratio of men to women in science continues to be uneven (changing though that is), and women are overdue for better representation in designer lab coats.
There is no single solution to this industry-wide problem, though some of us have set the priority to provide stylish, professionally-designed lab coats that are more flattering and practical for women. Another important step towards equal representation has come in the form of strong female characters in pop culture.
The Women of House M.D.
House is a medical drama that revolves around the protagonist Dr. Gregory House. House is a loose cannon with little respect for anybody but himself and his impeccable medical prowess. However, despite being centered on a male character, the show offers no shortage of powerful female personalities.
Dr. Lisa Cuddy is the Dean of Medicine at House’s hospital. Despite House driving the show, Cuddy serves as an authoritative and powerful figure that doesn’t let House get away with whatever he wants. Throughout the show, Cuddy exercises her authority without hesitation. She is confident and sure of who she is as a doctor, as a Dean of Medicine, and as a woman.
Dr. Remy Hadley, commonly referred to as Thirteen, is another strong female character on the show. Hadley is introduced as a recent hire onto the team, and thus has no seniority when it comes to the group dynamic. This does not hold her back, however; Hadley is depicted as strong-willed and determined to do everything in her power to help anybody in need. Time and time again, she is shown to refuse to back down despite any challenge that presents itself. At certain points, she even helps House learn and grow both as a doctor and a person.
Dr. Murphy Cooper
Often referred to as Murph, Dr. Murphy Cooper is a main protagonist in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Throughout the film, Murph is depicted as unapologetically smart and science oriented, so much so that she gets suspended from school after getting into a fist-fight with other kids who denied the Apollo moon-landings. She continues to fight for science throughout her life, always refusing to back down and always doing everything in her power to discover more.
Murph’s astounding intellect fights gender stereotypes and eventually even saves mankind after working out a theory of quantum gravity.
Female characters who proudly wear lab white coats serve a plethora of important roles, in reality and in fiction. For one, they are just as important in terms of divulging the culture and sending a message that science is something to be “wowed” by. Perhaps more importantly, however, women in lab coats in pop culture also help fight the stereotype that women don’t belong in science. Smashing this ceiling is important, and writing strong, smart, lab coat-wearing female characters for little girls to look up to is an influential piece of the puzzle.
The white lab coat is a highly respected status symbol. And the people who champion this symbol help change the world every day. While their work often goes unseen and un-thanked, pop culture can be used as a window into this world of discovery. Fictional characters in science-driven media help remind us of a very important fact: the world is a better place thanks to the wearers of lab coats.