Columbia University Medical Center

White Coat Ceremony, 20 Years Later


Patrice Alves being cloaked by Dr. Sandra O. Gold at the first White Coat Ceremony, in 1993. Dr. Alves graduated in 1997 and is now an internist in San Antonio. Photo by Charles Manley.

By Joseph Neighbor

The White Coat Ceremony—a rite of passage that marks the beginning of a student’s formal medical studies—started at P&S 20 years ago. In the two decades since, white coat ceremonies have become a tradition at 130 schools of medicine or osteopathy in the United States and many other countries.

At Columbia’s 20th anniversary of the ceremony on August 12, 170 students in the College of Physicians & Surgeons—the Class of 2017—will be the latest to participate in the ceremony. The incoming students will take an oath to practice medicine honestly, with compassion and empathy. The pledge is based on the Hippocratic Oath, which was written by Hippocrates—the “father of western medicine”—in the 5th century B.C., codifying the ethical standards physicians are enjoined to uphold.

Before 1993, medical students generally recited the oath only at graduation; now, medical students make the pledge both before and at the end of medical school. In addition to reciting the oath, students come forward during the ceremony to be “cloaked” before family and friends in the iconic short white coat that signifies their status as medical students.

This year’s ceremony will take on added significance because the students who finish medical school in the traditional four years will graduate in 2017—the 250th anniversary of P&S.

Included in the Class of 2017 are six graduates of CUMC pipeline projects—summer programs for first- and second-year college students from underrepresented or economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The programs offer a variety of science courses, seminars delivered by distinguished faculty, and opportunities to shadow physicians.

The inaugural class of Columbia’s new PhD-to-MD degree program also will be among those taking the oath and donning white coats. These four PhD-trained biological scientists will embark on a 36-month program designed by the Department of Medicine and the Office of Education at P&S.

Arnold P. Gold, MD, professor of clinical neurology and of clinical pediatrics at P&S, initiated the White Coat Ceremony to “welcome entering medical students and help them to establish a psychological contract for the practice of medicine.” His eponymous foundation continues to support the ceremony.

Speaker at this year’s ceremony will be Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, assistant professor of medicine at P&S and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for his book “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.” The ceremony in the P&S Alumni Auditorium begins at 4:30 p.m. and will be followed by a reception in Bard Hall. The ceremony is part of the Class of 2017 orientation week, which includes programs for family members, an introduction to gross anatomy, reviews of academic and administrative policies, panel discussions, a boat cruise, and a welcome expo.