The Color of Sick Bay

Throughout Star Trek (The Original Series), most of the walls (er, “bulkheads”) on the Enterprise were a uniform light gray color.  This non-descript, neutral color looks somewhat militaristic (kind of a “battleship gray” color) and it looks rather institutional–immediately conveying to viewers much of what needs to be conveyed from an Art Design standpoint.  (“This is a quasi-military vessel where 400+ people live and work in close quarters.”)  This neutral color also acts as a nice background “canvas” for other colorful things: paintings, sculptures, various innocuous wall decorations, “futuristic” signage, cabin labels and wayfinders, etc.  In fact, the lighting folks on Star Trek, headed by Cinematographers Jerry Finnerman, Al Francis, and others, along with gaffer George H. Merhoff would often “paint with light.”  Colored gels were placed in front of the studio lights, and the lights would be shone on to the neutral gray walls to give the color effect needed–without having to actually paint the walls.  Here’s one such typical “painting with light” shot from the episode “Charlie X” (episode 8):

"Charlie X"

But there is one room that throughout all three seasons of Star Trek was not painted this ubiquitous light gray color: the “Sick Bay Ward Room.” Here’s a typical shot of this room from the episode “Journey To Babel” (episode 44):

"Journey to Babel"

You can see that the walls of the Sick Bay Ward Room are not the regular light gray throughout most of the ship; they are a light minty-turquoise green color.  It turns out that at about the turn of the century (the 20th century, not the 21st century), a very specific shade of green (called “eye-ease green”) was developed.  It was (and still is) used in hospitals (notably in operating rooms) and is the photonegative of the color of blood.  (Well, human blood, I suppose.)   It turns out that when surgeons had been staring for long periods of time into an open surgical wound, when they looked up at the white walls of the surgical suite or the white linens or the white operating garb of other surgeons and scrub and circuling nurses, the negative afterimage from the blood would float around the surgeon’s field of view, being annoying and arguably dangerous.  Having everything white made a perfect “canvas” for this annoying anti-blood greenish splotchy negative afterimage to show up against.

Harry M. Sherman, A.M., M.D., summarizes it fairly nicely in his old article “The Green Operating Room at St. Luke’s Hospital” from the May, 1914, Issue of the California State Journal of Medicine:
“I advised that green, the complementary color to red, should be chosen as the color of the floor and wainscot.  The particular shade of green to be selected was that which was complementary to hemoglobin, and it was found to be the green of the spinach leaf.  Incidentally it may be said that the iron in the chlorophyl of spinach is said to be in the same chemical combination as the iron in hemoglobin, but I know nothing of the value of this, in making spinach green complementary to hemoglobin red.”1
So Dr. Sherman’s idea was to simply make everything in the operating theater this anti-blood green color to begin with–so that the splotchy greenish negative afterimage couldn’t be seen very well; it would disappear into the background “canvas.”  Indeed, even today, most operating suites, surgical gowns, drapes, cloths, sponges, and even the paint on the walls are now generally this strange anti-blood “eye-ease green” color.  (Further reading of the complete article will reveal that not only is the subject actually pretty interesting, but Dr. Sherman seems to have been a bit of a kook.)
At any rate, it is this anti-blood “eye-ease green” color that’s used in the Sick Bay Ward Room (and the Sick Bay Examination Room starting in the second season).  I’m not sure if doctors on board the Enterprise (or on other Starships, since we did see this same green in Sick Bay on the U.S.S. Defiant in “The Tholian Web) ever have much cause to look at bright red surgical incisions to such a degree that they need “eye-ease green” walls to reduce annoying afterimages.  But certainly using this color immediately conveys a sense of “hospital” and “medicine” to viewers–if only on a subconscious level.  (It also raises the interesting question of whether or not Vulcan surgeons paint their operating rooms with pale pink, and have pink scrubs–the photonegative of their blood.  But I seem to have digressed.)
Of course, the Sick Bay Ward Room also had a sub-motif of red-orange.  The linens on the beds and the pillows are red-orange, the color behind the frosted glass supply cabinet (where Dr. McCoy keeps his Saurian brandy and his trombone mutes) is red-orange, key surgical instruments are red-orange, and even colored fluid in spray bottles is generally red-orange:
"The Deadly Years"
Interestingly, for “The Tholian Web,” in order to give the viewer an immediate sense that we were on board a different Starship, the bed linens and the pillows were replaced with light blue material, and the frosted glass supply cabinet was lit from behind with a bluish color instead of its usual red-orange color.  So, in some subconscious way, this just doesn’t quite feel like the Enterprise’s Sick Bay Ward Room.  (It’s a fine line to walk–trying to make other Constitution-class Starships look different enough so that viewers can feel they are on some other different ship, yet not so different that the surroundings no longer look and feel like a Constitution-class Starship anymore.) 

"The Tholian Web"

"The Tholian Web"

As a bit of a side note, for the third season of Star Trek, the Sick Bay Ward Room was given a tiny painting overhaul: the top of the bedside tables and the credenza underneath the frosted glass supply cabinet were changed from being a simple grayish color (the same color as the Sick Bay beds) to being a brighter lemon-yellowish color.  Not only can you see it in the above “The Tholian Web” shot, but here’s a shot of this new yellowish color from the episode “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” (episode 62):

"Is There in Truth No Beauty?"

So, the subtlety of color choices in Sick Bay might not even be noticed on a conscious level by the viewer, but those colors are doing their duty on a subconscious level.  It’s details like this that contribute to Star Trek‘s enduring popularity even forty+ years later.

If anyone is interested, on our Star Trek Phase II sets, our Sick Bay Ward Room and Sick Bay Examination Room are painted with the following:

Wal-Mart ColorPlace Medium Base "Clear Turquoise" 91394

As always, questions, comments, feedback, and, of course, “shares,” “likes,” or “+1s” are always appreciated.

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1  Harry M Sherman, “The Green Operating Room at St. Lukes Hospital,” California State Journal of Medicine 12, no. 5 (1914): 181-183.
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About Gregory L. Schnitzer

Gregory L. Schnitzer is Co-Executive Producer on the fan-based Internet series Star Trek Phase II (formerly known as Star Trek New Voyages). Greg is a Registered Nurse and is generally in charge of Emergency Medical Services at the Star Trek Phase II shoots. He also generally serves as the production's Property Master and on-again, off-again Set Decorator. Born and raised in the beautiful but smoggy San Fernando Valley (which he still calls "home"), in real life, Greg is a Registered Nurse and Certified Six Sigma Black Belt, and currently works in the field of Health Information Management at various facilities and in various capacities in the Washington, D.C., greater metropolitan region.