American Experience
Early Years: Pivotal Decisions
Pivotal Decisions: Should Vivien Thomas Wear a Lab Coat?

Baltimore, 1941
At Johns Hopkins in 1941, a black man walking the halls in a starched white lab coat was an unusual sight. As Dr. Blalock's surgical research technician, Thomas was used to wearing such a coat in the lab -- but unaccustomed to the reaction he got outside the lab. After the first occasion, when he received long stares from passers by, he reconsidered how he should dress as he hurried across the campus.

The Old Hunterian Lab where Vivien Thomas conducted experiments was almost a block away from the building that housed Blalock's office. Blalock would often call Thomas on the telephone to ask him to bring over notes and protocols. Leaving the Hunterian, Thomas would walk to the entrance of the Women's Clinic and proceed down the block-long corridor to the Osler Building, where Dr. Blalock's office was located.

The first time Thomas made this trip, the people he passed stopped in their tracks, astonished at the sight of a black man wearing a lab coat in the halls of Johns Hopkins. The garb that Thomas wore symbolized a particular level of accomplishment and prestige within Hopkins and was traditionally reserved for doctors and professors. Not even interns dressed this way -- they wore shorter, white lab jackets. Furthermore, blacks, when they were seen at Johns Hopkins, usually filled menial jobs like laundry and custodial staff positions.

Select one of these three choices:

Choice 1
Thomas should stop wearing the full white lab coat altogether.

While working in the lab, Thomas could wear a protective apron or one of the shorter lab jackets.

Choice 2
Thomas should change into regular clothing whenever he walks to Dr. Blalock's office.

Wearing a suit and tie would be more acceptable and less conspicuous when visiting the administrative building.

Choice 3
Thomas should continue to wear the full lab coat no matter what reaction it causes.

After eleven years supporting Dr. Blalock's research, Thomas has earned the right to wear the coat and should keep it in on in all venues.