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By Selina Hurley on

Clothes Maketh The Doctor?

This time of year, gowns and mortar-boards are rented in their thousands in preparation for graduation ceremonies around the country. For medical students, after five years of undergraduate study you can probably imagine their relief.

Professor Sir Alexander Ogston's MD gown, 1870-1929 ( Science Museum, London )

Obtaining a degree in medicine has been the mainstay of the medical profession for centuries. However, licensed and strictly regulated medicine hasn’t always been the most dominant with competition from a range of other practitioners or widely available for all. Even in the history of medical education, a degree hasn’t been accessible for all.

Gaining a degree is a symbol of medical knowledge setting doctors apart from the lay public. But of course, you can’t wear academic robes every day to show your qualifications. Today we are used to the doctor’s white coat as one of the symbol of the medical profession.

White coats, ( Wellcome Images)

In the 19th century though, before the white coat became a symbol, how could you show your qualifications? There is of course the traditional framed certificate but there were other more subtle indicators. The brass door plate and the top hat was a subtle way of showing the social standing of a doctor had improved.

Dr Ward Cousins' door plate, 1860-1900 ( Science Museum, London )

Today the white coat appears to be undergoing changeable fortunes. Some have been disappearing from hospitals and clinics for various reasons: cross-infection, breaking down social barriers, and maybe the impact of ‘white coat syndrome.’ The doctor’s uniform is tied up with issues of trust, status, and even hope.

Of course the white coat isn’t just the preserve of doctors but also scientists and laboratory technicians.

What would be your symbol of modern medicine? Would it be the ubiquitious stethoscope slung around the doctor’s neck or somthing else?

Binaural stethoscope ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

2 comments on “Clothes Maketh The Doctor?

  1. Hi,

    This is completely off-topic, but I wondered if you could possibly do a post (apologies if you already have, I can’t find one!) about the Inventory numbers of the Science Museum, and perhaps give a potted history of something arriving, being numbered, the old accession registers etc, and perhaps also being de-accessioned, as many things have been at various times.

    I think a little appreciation of the archive registers of the Museum, and the online database would allow a much better understanding of the scale and scope of the current collections and the storage, retrieval and curation of them – in addition something I’ve always wondered is how much of the inventoried material was photographed? Were there specific criteria?

    Some of the old published catalogues give Museum “M.” numbers; “Inv.” – the familiar Inventory numbers, but then also sometimes a negative number, and even an “L.S.” (Lantern Slide) indication.

    Of course for some things there may be a negative but now no object extant…would be very interesting to see some examples!

  2. Thanks Chris – we can certainly do a post on this. In the meantime if you want some more information on inventory processes our Freedom of Information email may be able to help you. Our collections are online here:

    We’ll keep you posted on the blog!

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