Wearing it Well

Clifford Craig, M.D., will always remember the first time he put on his white coat as a medical student. He’d purchased it at Ulrich’s book store on South University Avenue, and, like the rest of the second-year University of Michigan medical students in 1966, was instructed to wear it on the first day classes. At the time, the M2 year marked the students’ entry into the clinical environment.

Craig can still hear the speech that then-Dean William Hubbard, M.D., gave his class at the beginning of their second year, a time when demonstrations protesting the Vietnam War were becoming more and more routine.

“He said to remember that when we had the white coat on, we represented not only ourselves, but the school and medicine in general and, most importantly, we represented him,” says Craig, now an associate professor of orthopaedic surgery at U-M. “He said if we wanted to get involved with any of the protests on the main campus, we should take the coats off. And I never forgot that — that you have to behave in a way that respects what you’re wearing.”

Craig says he has carried Hubbard’s message of professionalism with him throughout his career, during which he served on faculty at Tufts Medical School in Boston from 1977-1999. He then returned to teach at U-M, where he has been active with the U-M Medical Center Alumni Society since 2002 and is a past president. Craig has been a longtime supporter of the Medical School’s annual White Coat Ceremony, which began in 1996.

James Woolliscroft, M.D., then-dean of the Medical School, cloaks a student at the 2015 White Coat Ceremony. 

The White Coat Ceremony tradition marks the beginning of medical school for each incoming class as they are cloaked in the presence of their families, mentors, guests, faculty members and leaders of the Medical School. The Medical Center Alumni Society sponsors the event, and many of the white coats presented at the ceremony are sponsored by generous and dedicated alumni. Each white coat has the name of a sponsor inside, and Craig says he enjoys when students who have his name in their coats come find him or send him a thank you note.

“[The White Coat Ceremony] opens up a link to the alumni and the people that have gone before,” he says. “It’s really nice to have the ceremony at the beginning of medical school to signify that you’re a part of the profession. You’re one step closer to becoming a physician.”

And, as Craig discovered, the white coat, as a symbol, remains meaningful long after the first time a medical student wears it.

“It represents you as a professional,” Craig says, “and I think for patients, it represents hope. This is someone who is going to help you.”

The 2016 White Coat Ceremony will take place July 30 at 10 a.m. in Hill Auditorium.