The White Coat Ceremony and the Making of a Doctor

Posted in GUMC Stories

“Something is going to happen here that’s magical.”

With those words, Stephen Ray Mitchell, M.D., dean for medical education at Georgetown University School of Medicine, welcomed a standing-room only crowd gathered in Gaston Hall for the annual “White Coat Ceremony,” a time-honored tradition that marks the beginning of a first-year medical student’s career in health care.

On Friday, August 10, 196 new medical students were cloaked for the first time in their crisp white coats — the attire that physicians have traditionally worn for more than 100 years — followed by the recitation of the Hippocratic Oath.

“Today, you join Georgetown’s community of scholars and healers who are guided by the Jesuit principals of cura personalis – “care of the whole person” – mind, body and spirit,” said Howard J. Federoff, M.D., Ph.D., executive vice president for health sciences at Georgetown University Medical Center and executive dean of the School of Medicine.

“There’s something that happens when you put on a white coat. There’s an expectation of you that’s different,” Mitchell shared. “You don’t choose a white coat, the white coat chooses you.”

As Mitchell explained, the white coats don’t come with “operating instructions” so he called on another veteran of medicine, emeritus faculty member Donald Knowlan, M.D., to share some his wisdom about becoming a physician. Knowlan has delivered humorous yet meaningful advice at the ceremony for more than 10 years as part of the annual Edmund Pellegrino Professionalism Lecture.

Knowlan told the class of 2016 and their parents that the students will determine the future of medicine.

“Today, the future of medicine is in their imagination. From there, in time, it will be created into actions based on the knowledge they will obtain here, the quality of the goodness that’s overflowing in all of them and the choices they make,” he said.

“There’s only one person in the world like you,” Knowlan continued. “You have been given special skills and talents – each one of you, in a different way. The purpose of your life is to discover these gifts, maximize them and use them in caring for others.”

Knowlan’s final message was that the making of a doctor is a long process. “Be patient, very patient with what is forming within you.”

As Knowlan concluded, the magical moments began – the donning of the white coat.

Each student had the opportunity to be “coated” by a Georgetown physician or family member who is a medical doctor. Medical alumni generously sponsor the white coats for each of the students, and provide a card in the pocket that includes the name of the sponsor.

After sliding into the white sleeves, the students faced their family, friends, students and colleagues and spoke their full name. They were then “pinned” by a member of the 2015 class – a ceremonial passing of the cura personalis torch.

One of those “coated” and “pinned” was Reuben Alao Falola who says he knows his Georgetown training will teach him how to carry that torch forward by focusing on the entire patient.

“I always wanted to go to Georgetown University because of cura personalis and what that means,” he said.

Falola also recognizes Georgetown’s focus on cultivating the entire physician.

“They can really tailor to the special needs of each medical student who is aspiring to be a physician and you can see that clearly in the Georgetown culture,” he explained.

As the ceremony neared its conclusion, Knowlan returned to the lectern to administer the Hippocratic Oath, historically taken by physicians and healthcare professionals swearing to practice medicine ethically and honestly. The oath will be taken by the class two more times –during a ceremony before the students start on their clinical rotations, and upon graduation.

“Take that oath, put it in your white coat pocket, and think about it as you go forward,” Mitchell said.

To hear more from Dean Mitchell and students about the White Coat Ceremony, click here:

This year’s White Coat Ceremony was recorded and is available for viewing at:

By Karen Mallet and David Blanco, GUMC Communications

(Published August 13, 2012)