Before the white lab coat become a symbol of the medical profession, the sector had some interesting hot takes.
Cocaine for sinuses, toothaches, depression, and impotence. Morphine to help teething babies. Pelvic massages to cure female hysteria. Plus, galvanic baths to restore sexual desire.
It is fair to say that in the 19th century, the world of medicine had something of an image problem. Simply put, the profession was built on an unsound foundation of quackery, pseudoscience, and mysticism.
For instance, cholera, which would wreak havoc through British cities in the mid-1850s, was believed to be caused by, among other things, cold fruits like cucumbers and melons or by intense fear and rage. A popular cure for this ailment was blood-letting via leeches to cleanse the body.
In fact, blood-letting was something of a medical man’s bread and butter. Many doctors of the era still worshipped an ancient form of medicine known as the humorous theory. This was based on the idea that when someone was unwell, it was because there was an imbalance of one of four liquids within the body – the blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Naturally, the best way to rebalance this was through bleeding or purging!
With all of this in mind, you may not be surprised to learn that more often than not, a visit from the good doctor himself was likely followed next by that of a priest and shortly afterward by an undertaker.
Combining these woes of the medical profession, doctors of the time wore more black than Johnny Cash could shake a stick at. Nothing like wearing the color of death to calm the nerves of a patient circling the drain. Moreover, their dark-colored attire would often be stiff with blood from a previous operation. Remarkably, this unkempt fashion choice was reputedly seen as an indicator of the doctor’s experience.
Talk about needing a PR intervention! Ladies and gentlemen, enter the humble white lab coat.
As we know now, today’s best coats are professionally styled garments tailored in LABTEX premium fabric to deliver dynamic function to the user. However, when the coats first came into the realm of the medical profession, their arrival was for a far more practical reason.
A symbol of cleanness!
Yes, thanks to antiseptic surgical procedures first developed by Joseph Lister in the 1860s and 70s, whereby medical equipment and wounds would be sterilized with carbolic acid, medicine had a Eureka moment that blood and guts did not, in fact, lead to glory on the operating table.
To emphasize the scientific breakthrough of germ theory and antiseptic surgery, doctors took cues from the laboratories where these evolutions in medicine were perfected and donned the most recognizable symbol of the profession, the white lab coat.
It soon became a symbol of cleanliness, in stark contrast to the battlefields which had so fast-tracked the need for advancement in medicine. Simply put, white allowed any sort of dirt or contamination to be noted at once, thus acting as a visual aid to keep doctors and their operating rooms sparkling clean.
But what’s this you say about battlefields? Well, the saying goes that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Unfortunately, the journey to realizing the benefits of a clean operating room that eventually bore the white lab coat was a bloody path to travel indeed. Take a walk with me as we explore the key moments that spurred on these monumental leaps in medical advancement at the close of the profession’s dark ages.
The Wars That Led To The White Lab Coat
They say that things have to get worse before they get better, and that is certainly the case with the realization of how critical a clean and sterile medical environment was to patient survival rates. Many key developments in healthcare have their origins in the theater of war, where the treatment of wounded soldiers has led to innovations throughout history.
In fact, it was two wars on either side of the Atlantic in the mid-1800s that really hammered home the point that soldiers were more likely to die from disease rather than the enemy and that something had to be done about that.
These wars were the Crimean War of 1853-56 and the US Civil War of 1861-65. Let’s start with the former, the war in Crimea. In this conflict, disease killed four times as many soldiers as battle wounds. Soberingly, nearly 80% of soldiers admitted to these hospitals died from infections from being in the hospitals and not from their original wounds.