Why do scientists wear lab coats? Well, they don’t all do, of course. Many researchers work in environments that don’t require a lab coat at all: They might sit behind a computer, or do field work outside. But for a lot of lab-based scientists, a lab coat is part of their wardrobe.
The purpose of lab coats
There are two main reasons for wearing a lab coat. To protect the researcher from the chemicals they work with, and to project the experiment from any dirt, dust, and microbes from the researcher’s clothes and skin.
In the first instance, the lab coat has to form a physical barrier, but it doesn’t have to be clean. An organic chemist’s lab coat still works if it has a stain on it. When it start getting holes from too many spilled chemicals, it might be time for a new one.
But for a biomedical researcher the purpose of their lab coat is not only to protect them from contamination, but also to keep their experiment clean. This means their lab coat needs to be regularly cleaned.
Either way, lab coats shouldn’t really leave the lab, and definitely not be worn at lunch. They’re either contaminated with substances that you don’t want in your food, or you’re getting food on your lab coat that needs to stay clean to protect your work.
When did scientists first start wearing lab coats?
Doctors started wearing white coats as a uniform somewhere in the late 19th century, to look more scientific. By then, the lab coat was already considered a symbol of science, but when did that start?
I thought this questions wouldn’t be too difficult to answer, but every search only turned up the fact that doctors copied their lab coats from scientists, and the stereotypes of science that the coat represent, but not much about what made scientists wear them in the first place.
I searched Google Scholar for key phrases like “lab coats” and “lab coat history” but the same little factoids kept coming up: Doctors copied their coat from scientists. Lab coats used to be beige, but white was considered more sterile and clean.
From lab to clinic to lab
The closest I could get to a complete picture of the history of the lab coat for scientists was a 2015 column by Philip Ball in Chemistry World. He was able to find some evidence that the lab coat used to only be worn by assistants, and that more senior researchers didn’t start wearing one until after doctors did. What’s more, it didn’t start becoming popular until the first half of the 20th century. So it looks like the lab coat made its way from lab assistants to doctors to scientific group leaders. And it only took less than a century for the lab coat to become ingrained in pop culture as a symbol of what a scientist is supposed to look like, even though only some lab-based chemists and biologists regularly need one.
But who wore that first lab coat? Ball’s article mentions that a protective apron was already visible in 16th century paintings of alchemists, so it’s likely impossible to point to the absolute origin. Despite the connotations of medical and scientific status and expertise, at its core the lab coat is just a piece of protective workwear.