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Culturally, the association of doctors with white has been a fairly recent one, and one that reflects society’s changing attitudes toward medicine.
In pre-white-coat times, physicians used primitive and and had little formal training. (Medical school could be finished in a year.) Early doctors competed for legitimacy (and patients) with other healing arts like homeopathy and . But the development of antiseptics and anesthesia, among other things, demonstrated the exceptional power of science to improve health. Doctors strove to become more scientific, in practice and in dress. The lab coat served both purposes by providing a (supposedly) sterile work environment and soothing patients with its air of scientific authority. The traditional lab coat was beige, but doctors adopted white because the color symbolizes life and purity. (In earlier times, , in keeping with the high mortality rates seen at hospitals. The nuns who served as nurses often wore black habits.) By 1915, physicians working in hospitals had for the most part switched from street clothes to white coats and pants.