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No Grey Area: Perelman Holds 20th White Coat Ceremony (photos)

Looking back on the founding of the Perelman School of Medicine 250 years ago of course reveals the major changes that have occurred in medical education, but you don’t have to go back that far to see notable differences.

Advances in technology have moved at breakneck speed and the education curriculum has evolved, even in the last five to 10 years. Rewind 20 years, and you wouldn’t see a White Coat ceremony for the incoming class. Today, loved ones gather around new students for their rite of passage, proudly watching as each is robed with a short white coat by leadership and recite the Hippocratic Oath. Before 1996, new students brought their own white coats, followed by an unceremonious start to classes.

This year—a hallmark one for education milestones at Perelman—marks the 20th anniversary for Penn’s White Coat, but the first event was actually held in 1993 at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. It gained steam after that and now over 100 medical schools—and nursing, dental and other health professions schools—hold a White Coat. Today, the white coat—short ones for med students and long for residents and physicians—symbolizes scientific healing, truth, and medical professionalism. 

This wasn’t always the case, though. Go back over a 100 years, and you wouldn’t see any white. Up until the very late 19th century, doctors wore the opposite: black coats. During those times, interactions were considered very solemn matters, since most people were on their death beds when seeing doctors, so out of respect, they would don black.

The shift from black to white is observed in two very famous paintings from Philadelphia painter Thomas Eakins. In Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic” from 1875, Samuel Gross is seen wearing black while performing surgery in an amphitheater for students and colleagues. His “The Agnew Clinic” from 1889 shows D. Hayes Agnew, a professor at the time at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, dressed in white, along with other clinicians and nurses. 

Check out the slide show below to see photos from this year’s White Coat, and for more comparisons in medical education visit this slideshow.

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