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White Lab Coats? (2017-05-29)

Wikimedia Commons says this picture is a white lab coat and scrubs, where 'scrubs' are the light cotton pants and shirts regularly worn by nurses, doctors, and medical students working in medical facilities. Wikimedia Commons says this picture is a white lab coat and scrubs, where 'scrubs' are the light cotton pants and shirts regularly worn by nurses, doctors, and medical students working in medical facilities.
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, May 2017

The other day a question came up about how to visually depict scientists, and then why particular images say "scientist" and not others. Practically speaking, we are all familiar with what can be called "vernacular images," a whole range of shorthand visual stereotypes that we see all the time and have often been instructed in via board and picture books from before we could talk. This is why most small children can draw a "chef" or "nurse" or any number of fairly common "occupational categories" as a particular person wearing specific clothes and holding specific things. Hence, a scientist is regularly depicted in a white lab coat, despite this being in total defiance of almost all evidence and even necessity. Very few laboratories require the use of lab coats to begin with, as odd as that may initially sound, simply because they aren't necessarily very useful except when handling certain types of chemicals. People involved in performing dissections may wear scrubs, light cotton pants and shirts that are in common use by staff and students working at medical facilities. I can say from experience that even the professors never wore white lab coats in my chemistry or physics labs. Anyone who has watched the various nasa and european space agency news conferences has likely seen astronomers, astrophysicists, and a range of engineers, all without white lab coats. One fellow ended up in particularly humiliating circumstances at one of these due to his spectacularly inappropriate for international television, and honestly, for work, shirt.

All that said, the stereotype must come from somewhere, and if you surmised from the pop up caption on the accompanying picture and your own experience that it is likely medicine, you;re quite right. The white lab coat is not a symbol of science or medicine though, so much as what scientist Jenna Todd Jones concisely described in 2014 as "a sign of authority and competence." Since early european medicine could be spectacularly hit and miss at times, especially in periods when doctors disdained to wash their hands between autopsies, attending the terminally ill, and delivering babies, an irresponsible practice that held into the early twentieth century in most of the "western world." There is considerable argument about when the knowledge that washing hands between patients was important was lost, but that needn't detain us here. Instead, let's also bear in mind that it was a lot harder to provide effective medical help before the advent of antibiotics and rediscovery of the importance of clean water if people opted to live together in large numbers for extended periods. So doctors needed as many authority and competence points as they could get, since the chances they were going to be successful at helping their patients in the western world could vary even more wildly than they still do now. Before the advent of anaesthetics, those points also helped convince patients that painful procedures were worth bearing, or at least convincing others to help hold the patients down.

Yet, as Mark S. Hochberg notes in the ama journal of medical ethics explains, the original doctor's coat or authority and competence was not white at all, but black. (I have serious doubts about his assertion that "A child's earliest memory of a doctor is the person in the white coat." however.) Until the nineteenth century, men asserted the formality and importance of what they were doing, as well as their authority and competence, by wearing a black suit. For those fond of B-movies with outrageous A-movie budgets, Francis Ford Coppola's version of Dracula shows the character Jonathan Harker in a striking range of outfits. Whenever Harker is specifically engaged in professional tasks, his coat is always black, though he doesn't always keep it on, which was probably a faux pas. The change to a white coat corresponds with the rediscovery of such concepts as contamination and the importance of cleanliness in medical treatment, among other things. The symbolism of whiteness and its not quite opposite, a soiled white thing is both cliché and dangerous when misapplied. In the case of doctors, the new symbolism of teh white coat included the implication that they had learned and were now practising the new knowledge of how to control and avoid infectious disease.

Germ theory, new medicines, basic hand washing and so on, all were associated in the western world with the development of modern science. Which brings us full circle back to the extension of the white lab coat beyond medicine to science in general. Hochberg writes that the white lab coat is seen by "many patients" as a "cloak of compassion." This makes me wonder why he did not discuss "white lab coat syndrome," in which patients may experience raised blood pressure at the doctor's office when otherwise their blood pressure is normal.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Monday, May 29, 2017 2:03:23