Nurses were the first to wear uniforms, before doctors wore scrubs. In the earlier part of the twentieth century the identifiable mark of a busy and successful surgeon was the amount of blood on their clothes. Yes. The surgeon wore his own clothes during a medical operation, sometimes covered by a butcher’s apron to prevent blood staining them. Back then, doctors performed surgery with bare hands and non-sterile instruments and supplies, obtaining needles and suture material from the local market. It’s hard to imagine in these days where the norm is that of a five star surgical center that functions with ‘positive flow’ ventilation and air conditioning, as well as having back up from its own electrical generators, that doctors used to perform surgery in such a ‘barbaric’ way. Thank goodness for scrubs. That’s where the real story of modern medicine begins. Doctors wearing scrubs brought more to patients than McDreamy and McSteamy from the hit ABC TV Show Grey’s Anatomy ever did.
It was the Spanish Flu pandamic of 1918 and the growing medical interest in Lister’s Antiseptic that brought some doctors to begin wearing cotton gauze masks in surgery. This was not to protect the patient from intra-operative infection, but rather to protect the surgeon from contracting the patient’s diseases! Around the same time, OR staff began wearing heavy rubber gloves to protect their hands from the solutions used to clean the room and equipment, a practice surgeons adopted, albeit rather grudgingly. Over time, gauze masks and gloves became widely accepted and then gowns worn by OR personnel when “scrubbing in” for surgery became standard procedure.
By the 1940s, advances in surgical antisepsis and the research and science behind wound infection led to the adoption of antiseptic drapes and gowns for the OR. Originally, OR attire was white to signify cleanliness. However, the combination of bright OR lights and an all-white environment led to eye strain for the surgeon and staff. By the 1950s and 1960s, most hospitals had abandoned white OR apparel in favor of various shades of green and blue which provides less eye fatigue. By the 1970s, scrubs had largely evolved into their current state: a short-sleeve V-necked shirt and draw string pants. And we now see a happy variety of colors and styles (some pediatricians feature cartoon characters on their scrubs to the delight of many a child), as well as scrub caps that have evolved from a means to protect patients from hair contaminants to signature styles for many a groovy doctor.