Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary on ‘men in white coats’:
men in white coats n. (a) medical or laboratory staff, esp. doctors; (b) psychiatrists or psychiatric workers, usually (with humorous exaggeration) referred to in order to imply a person’s supposedly imbalanced or deluded state of mind.
The dictionary has this to say about the first use of the phrase:
1961 W. FENNELL Dexter gets Point 135, I think I’d better phone the man in the white coat.] 1967 L. ANDREWS Hosp. Circles ii. 33 He did not wake when the usual procession of night sisters and men in white coats came in and out. 1968 D. HELWIG in Sat. Night Mar. 37/3 They’re going to put you in jail, do you know that? Or they’re going to send the men in white coats for you.
Of these the third by Helwig would be the most recognizable in the vernacular. I’ve no idea who he or she is or was.
They’re coming to take me away ho ho hee hee ha haaa!
To the funny farm,
Where life is beautiful all the time.
And I’ll be happy to see those nice young men
In their clean white coats,
And they’re coming to take me away ha haaa!
I’ve actually never worn a white coat as a doctor, although I was forced to wear one as a student. More socially, I did wear one on the 2007 RemedyUK London March and made it onto the background of a report on Channel 4 news to other people’s hilarity. This aside, they’re uncomfortable, hot and unless changed every day, potentially rather dirty. I suspect that doctors used to wear them to give themselves an air of professional expertise and that their demise has been as much about fashion and the breaking down of barriers between healthcare professions as much anything else.
If anyone knows any more about the use of white coats in psychiatry, then please comment below.