|L-R: “The Gross Clinic” by Thomas Eakin, 1875; “The Agnew Clinic” by Thomas Eakin, 1889.|
Toward the end of the 19th century, Western medicine had an image problem. Joseph Lister’s ideas about antiseptics were spreading, and John Snow had made a breakthrough in mapping the spread of cholera. But to the public, most medical “cures” were little more than quackery and mysticism, and the appearance of a physician merely presaged a painful death.
At the same time, the reputation of science was in rapid ascendancy. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the towns and cities of Europe and America, and new breakthroughs were reported on a weekly basis in more than a thousand different scientific journals.
So the medical establishment did a costume change. Doctors dropped their traditional black coats, which were worn either as a mark of formality (like a tuxedo) or to symbolize the solemnity of their profession, and instead opted for white coats like the ones worn by scientists in their laboratories. The shift can be seen clearly in two different paintings by Thomas Eakins of operating theaters in the United States, separated by just 14 years. - Why the White Lab Coat Changed Medical History