It is weird to think that the ubiquitous scrubs that are now such a part of everyone’s experience were not always part of it. It is interesting to ponder what do the different color medical scrubs mean, especially considering that everything in a hospital has a specific function, especially given the history of the medical profession. Because of this it can help to look at the history of the clothing that has become the de facto uniform of the medical profession, and it is actually a somewhat interesting one.
Scrubs have long been available in a number of different colors, and some hospitals have taken advantage of that diversity. As to what do the different color medical scrubs mean, it depends on the hospital. Some hospitals have established their own color to differentiate between the various types of nurses, such as student, licensed, and certified, as well job, such as surgical assistant, infant care, and floor nurse. The closest to a universal code is that those that deal with infant care tend to wear pink; this serves both as identifier as well as a limited security function. Otherwise, there are no universal color codes between hospitals.
Originally, surgeons wore regular clothes into the operating theater, with sometimes only a butcher’s apron added. Because being a doctor has always been considered an honorable profession and clothes make the man, any fluids, especially blood, that happened to decorate a man’s clothes was seen as a sign of being part of a select group of lifesavers and so a surgeon actually wanted a little blood visible on his work clothes. Keep in mind also that there was some debate as to whether or not Lister’s theory bout how germs spread was reasonable and so there was just not seen to be a reason to have a different uniform for operating.
The influenza outbreak of 1917 caused the first major change in how surgeons dressed, as they added a gauze mask to their ensemble. However, this was not so much to keep the operating theater sterile so much as it was to keep the patient’s disease away from the doctor. By the 1930s Lister’s theories had begun to take hold, and so doctors attempted to keep the theater as sterile as possible. Because of this bright white clothes were adopted as well as bright lights; suffice to say that the combination created a situation that caused eye strain and so green clothes were adopted.
By the 1950s the thick clothes normally worn gave way to lighter clothes. These clothes had the advantage of being easily cleaned or disposed of due to their relative cheapness, and surgeons began wearing them even outside of the operating room. By the 1960s the clothes looked like what we are used to seeing now, and wearing scrubs was more commonplace. They had long ago been called “scrubs” because they were worn in scrubbed rooms, and the name had long ago replaced the more ostentatious “theater greens”. They had also been adopted by floor nurses because they allowed for a easy moment, a necessity when they could have to deal with any kind of emergency, although some nurses would adopt a floral top in an attempt to be more friendly.
Scrubs ultimately work extremely well in their current form, providing a uniform of sorts to the medical profession and one that can be quickly cleaned or disposed of depending on the needs of the moment. They can also provide an easy form of identification, and thus help keep things organized. Scrubs are likely to be kept for a while longer, and so will remain part of the experience of going to a hospital.