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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

White Coat Ceremony at Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine

Posted November 29, 2011
by Donald F. Smith, DVM, Cornell University

Cornell’s 8th annual White Coat Ceremony for third-year veterinary medical students is Saturday, December 3. The concept of the “white coat” donning for medical students was inaugurated at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and shortly thereafter adapted for veterinary students at Washington State University.

Cornell adapted the practice in 2004, but with a twist. Instead of holding the ceremony at the beginning of the four-year curriculum, we decided to mark students’ transition from the preclinical to their clinical education as they began their hospital rotations.

Canada honored Sir William Osler in 1969
on the 50th anniversary of his death with this
commemorative postage stamp.
Photo by author.
Historically, both medical and veterinary students were largely “book taught” until about 100 years ago when the curriculum was expanded to include one or two years of clinical education in the hospital ward (or at the farm or stable). Dr. William Osler, a physician at Johns Hopkins Medical School but who had previously worked at McGill University’s veterinary college, is credited with being the first medical school professor to bring students out of the lecture hall into the wards.

Osler observed, “He [or she] who studies medicine without books sails an uncharted sea, but he who studies medicine without patients does not go to sea at all”. “Listen to your patients”, he would tell his medical students, “he [or she] is telling you the diagnosis.”

Cornell professor Dr. William Hornbuckle is the quintessential small animal diagnostician. Like Osler, the respect he has from over four decades of students is legendary. Dr. Hornbuckle is a stickler for getting an exhaustive history from the client. But once that information is gathered, he is adamant that the student "concentrate on the physical examination. Don't get distracted by talking to the client or your colleague for this is your chance to listen to the animal and what it is telling you."

Because the white coat symbolizes the generic and traditional professional attire of the health sciences, we at Cornell decided in conjunction with our alumni executive board (the co-sponsors of the white coat ceremony) to follow the lead of our medical school colleagues. We did this while also recognizing that many veterinarians—large animal and wildlife practitioners, for example—do not typically wear white coats in their practices.

As the veterinarian mentors of the Class of 2013 formally robe or “coat” each student this Saturday, they are following the deep-rooted tradition of veterinary education at Cornell where faculty promote the essential role of patient-oriented learning. It is in the clinical environment—whether the hospital ward, the farm or stable, or the wildlife sanctuary—that observations of both illness and health are embedded in the new veterinarian’s memory, and that textbook knowledge is applied with relevance to the patient.